A Child Martyr, A Saintly Bishop, and the Gift of Lent
By Father Bernard O'Connor
FEBRUARY 23, 2008 (www,insidethevatican.com) - Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen is a name probably quite familiar to most readers of Inside the Vatican. His famed Life is Worth Living television series (1952-1957), together with his Catholic Hour radio broadcasts on NBC (1930-1952), in addition to his lectures, retreat conferences, publications (64 books, 65 pamphlets), and his exceptional fundraising while national director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, rank him as one of the most significant US Churchmen in modern history. Soon after his death on December 9, 1979, steps were initiated which may lead to the remarkable archbishops beatification and canonization.
Many may be aware that a key element of Archbishop Sheens spirituality was a promise to spend a holy hour daily in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, a promise to which he remained dedicated throughout the six decades of his priesthood. He once explained the origin of this prayer commitment. The account is related in his St. Therese: A Treasured Love Story, (Irving, TX: Basilica Press), the recently published (2007) collection of his novena sermons given in 1973 in Dublin for the centenary of the Little Flowers birth.
It seems that either during China's 1911 Republican Revolution or its earlier Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901), staunchly anti-Catholic militants took control of a Catholic parish. The pastor was confined to house arrest and from his rectory saw the desecration of the Church's tabernacle. Thirty-two consecrated hosts were strewn about the floor.
But the scene was also witnessed by an 11-year-old girl. For the 31 nights which followed she returned to the Church. After praying devoutly, she consumed a Host on each occasion. On the thirty-second visit, however, a noise awakened the guard. He chased her, caught her, and beat her to death with the butt of his rifle (idem, pp. 34-35).
Archbishop Sheen, who heard of her martyrdom while he was a seminarian, promised that henceforth he would pray the holy hour each and every day for the rest of his life. Her sacrifice inspired him; his response sustained his vocation of exemplary service.
The youthful Chinese heroine could never have imagined that via the future bishop she would touch millions of Catholic faithful. There is a sense in which Pope Benedict also reminds us that our love of God through Christ and His Church never exists in isolation, but is capable of transforming those with whom we interact; those whom we meet, and through them countless others. Whether or not we are conscious of the influence we exert, it nevertheless reaches to the very crevices of spiritual darkness where it injects the light of truth and hope.
In his Message for Lent 2008, the Holy Father asks us to imitate the widow immortalized in the Gospel of Mark (ch. 12, v.44). She was poor. And yet her donation to the coffers of the Temple was all she had to live on. The Pope comments that this widow gives to God not out of her abundance, not so much what she has but what she is. Her entire self.
This is the same lesson symbolized by the Chinese girl. And it was the lesson bequeathed by her to Archbishop Sheen and thence to us. Our Catholicism does not reside on the periphery of our being, but at its core. God passionately yearns that the All of His love may be eternally united to the all of our surrendering self. Because God is fullness of gift, and because Jesus upon His Cross is a total offering to the Father on our behalf, the purpose of our identity in relationship to the Sacred will not be realized by half-way measures or by a partial or minimal commitment.
Resisting the fallacy that anything suffices for God is primarily the goal of our participation in Lent. On Ash Wednesday (February 6), Pope Benedict addressed his general audience with this exact point in mind.
The placing of the ashes, together with the exhortation to convert and believe the Gospel are a joint admission that we are limited creatures, sinners constantly in need of penitence and conversion. For we are immersed in a contemporary society which seems to conspire to deceive us into asserting an independence from God. The consequence is as tragic as it is futile. Man becomes his own slave and often finds himself inconsolably alone. The conversion promoted by Lent is itself a genuine grace provided by God to open (our) heart completely to Him. Lent therefore is meant for each of us to be a spur to return to the arms of God so that we may entrust ourself to Him like adopted children, children regenerated by His love and life.
Pope Benedict emphasizes the role of penance, and his emphasis corresponds to that of Vatican Council II. The Councils Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy stresses that there are both personal and social consequences of sin, and that the real essence of the virtue of penance is hatred for sin as an offence against God! (art. 109).
Therefore, penance should not be only internal and individual but also external and social. And the practice should be adapted in keeping with the possibilities that are reasonable for the present day, for a given area and as appropriate for specific circumstances (art. 110). The Councils approach, then, was not to insist upon a generic version of Lenten observance but to be simultaneously flexible and sensitive to peoples unique context and situation.
In his Lenten Message, Pope Benedict similarly notes that Lenten renewal has traditionally consisted of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. These are penitential in as much as they permit us to divest ourselves to assist those in need while embracing self-denial (n. 1). Prayer requires us to discipline our usage of time, our energy and our focus. Fasting involves the discipline of bodily restraint, and almsgiving is a discipline whereby we are liberated from undue attachment to worldly goods. Combined, but especially in the case of almsgiving, they constitute a mixed cleansing which is accompanied by a gesture of ecclesial communion.
For example, just as St. Paul describes how the early Church collected funds to alleviate the distress of Jerusalem's Christian community (cf. 2 Cor. 8-9), the special collections which many dioceses implement during Lent enable a vital expression of support and solidarity for Christians elsewhere whose needs often well exceed their resources. (As an aside, I might mention that proceeds from the Good Friday collection are forwarded to the Vatican's Congregation for Eastern Churches. The monies received are distributed throughout the Holy Land, where pressures due to political and social instability have resulted in serious, almost overwhelming burdens for Catholics who struggle to remain there. I can attest that the generosity shown on Good Friday is of enormous benefit to their survival and is likewise a crucial aid to the maintenance of our Churches, shrines, and our numerous educational and charitable institutions located in the region. Pope Benedict is acutely aware of their plight. His is also aware that the administrative costs to transfer the acquired funds is near negligible.)
A recommendation: The Holy Father's Lenten reflections further suggest a day-by-day program for meditation which we might repeat during the weeks of Lent.
Monday Jesus explicitly admonishes the one who possesses and uses earthly riches only for self (n. 2).
Tuesday Almsgiving, according to the gospel is not mere philanthropy. And it never seeks a return of personal interest or simply of applause (n. 3)
Wednesday Almsgiving can become an instrument for reconciliation with God and our brothers and sisters (n.4).
Thursday Almsgiving teaches us the generosity of love (n. 5). Lent motivates us to follow Christs example. He withheld nothing from the Father nor from us.
Friday Lent is a school which teaches us what it means to make ourselves available (idem).
Saturday Lent involves a deepen(ing of) our Christian vocation and inspires various forms of giving (idem).
Sunday Lent invites us to train ourselves spiritually, also through the practice of almsgiving, in order to grow in charity and recognize in the poor Christ Himself (n. 6).
Conclusion: As Pope Benedict prays, may we endure the spiritual battle of Lent and arrive at the celebration of Easter Feasts renewed, comforted, strengthened and empowered.
Fr. O'Connor, a Canadian, is an official in the Vatican's Congregation for Eastern Churches.