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The command “fear not” or its equivalent appears 364 times in Sacred Scripture. In many ways it was a foundational virtue of the People of God, beginning with Abraham through Moses and the prophets, the Maccabees and seen in the martyrdom of the Apostles.
On another level one of the most admirable accolades when speaking about an individual is the phrase that he or she has the courage of their convictions. But only as we grow through difficult experiences do we see the profound nature of this observation. It is, in my opinion, one of those phrases that we must grow into.
Being what is termed an umbrella word, i.e. a word seeming to carry many meanings and connotations, courage must be given precision as it relates to our lives now. We will begin by concentrating upon the personal dimension of courage. How often do we pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”? Because of the wide scope of this phrase, we sometimes fail to personalize this idea. In other words, we should recognize that such a plea involves the idea that God’s will be realized in my own will and heart--that I am willing to submit my life to the direction that the Lord wishes.
Because of our training and upbringing, as well as the desire to control our destiny, this is not easy. It takes courage to be open and led by the Lord; and to pray for the grace to accept the promptings of the Spirit, wherever they may lead.
I mention the latter because of an incident in the Acts of the Apostles where St. Paul, zealous and selfless, had determined to preach the Gospel in Bythinia; but when he reached the border, the Spirit indicated that he was not to enter but go elsewhere. In other words, he was called upon to abruptly change directions in his life. Such acceptance, based ultimately upon his trust in God, must have had certain personal inconveniences. And given his desires and preparations, it required courage to accept such re-orientation.
In our own lives, the acceptance of God’s will--unfathomable as it is, can require courage. One might think of those who are struck with serious illnesses--especially at the prime of one’s career. Another example would be when one realizes that one’s marriage has failed or the disappointment in one’s children when one realizes that despite our sacrifices they seem to be taking an alternative direction in their lives.
If I correctly read the First Letter of Peter, he sees that a vocation to suffering (“for you are called to this”) is part of the Christian life. His explanation of this calling is simple: “because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you a model that you should follow in his footsteps” (2, 21).
At the very least, we can understand this idea in the context of dying to self and sin. But we should also include the mystical dying that each Eucharist presents--calling us to empty ourselves out in love and service to our brothers and sisters.
In Luke’s account of the Last Supper this point is clearly made.
After Christ’s prediction of betrayal, the text moves on to the role of the disciple which is to serve. In the Gospel writer’s mind, there is an intimate connection between the two. Even now, he seems to be saying, we can betray Christ by not understanding the necessity to reach out and serve others.
One of the Psalmists noted that “in your (God’s) light we see light.” The point he was trying to emphasize was that only as we open ourselves to the Divine and allow His Light to illuminate our being will we come to a true knowledge of our faults and failings. Over the course of life, we tend (unconsciously) to develop an edited version of self. We can overemphasize our potentials and talents. And we can overlook or ignore our faults and failings. This is almost natural. It takes courage to break away from such behavior patterns and to cultivate the redemptive beauty which comes from looking at ourselves in the divine light.
In our time, I believe that there is a need for courage in relation to the Church. Certainly, the Church is open to criticism. But it is also the hope of the world. It takes courage to profess the ideas of the late Belgian Cardinal Suenens who maintained that just as the Body of Christ was bloodied and bruised on the Cross, but still remained the hope of the world, so we must believe the same about His Body the Church. These are hard words, but true.
Msgr. McDonnell is a senior priest of the archdiocese and is in residence at St. Mary, Dedham.