Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
by Bishop William S. Skylstad
(From the Aug. 18, 2005 edition of the Inland Register)
A couple of years ago, Bishop (now Archbishop) Wilton Gregory and I had the opportunity to visit briefly Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen van Thuan, who was the president of the Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice in the Vatican. At the time, the cardinal was seriously ill with stomach cancer. He died a few weeks later.
Several years ago he published a little booklet, Five Loaves and Two Fish, an account of his imprisonment in Vietnam. The cardinal was appointed the coadjutor Archbishop of Saigon in 1975. Shortly afterward, he was placed under arrest and imprisoned for 13 years, much of that time in solitary confinement.
In his reflection on that time in prison, the cardinal recounts how difficult the imprisonment was: isolation, darkness, terrible conditions, rough treatment. The cell was so humid and dank that mushrooms grew on his bed. Yet he was buoyed up by his faith and his constant reflection on God’s goodness.
He sent word outside that he needed stomach medicine. The people knew what he meant: They sent in a small amount of wine, and he was able to celebrate Mass, recalling from memory the words, using the palm of his hand as a chalice, where he placed a few drops of wine to become the Body and Blood of Christ. What a remarkable story of courage, patience, and trust in God’s presence, even in the darkest moments.
This story came to mind as I talked to parishioners at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes on the 19th Sunday of Ordinary Time. The Gospel account for that Sunday was from Matthew 14. The scene is the story of the storm on the lake. Jesus sends his apostles across the lake, and they run into this fierce storm. They are terrified. It is dark, but they see this figure across the water. He identifies himself, but they still are cautious. Is this a ghost? Peter shouts out that if this was the Lord, could he come over the water to see him? Peter hears the word “Come,” and he goes. But winds are terrifying and he begins to sink. He cries out in terror. Jesus takes him by the hand and asks, “Where is your faith?”
Cardinal Francis Xavier van Thuan’s story is a modern-day rendition of that story about the storm on the lake.
To one extent or another, at one time or another, all of us face storms in our own lives. Often, the storms are many. But as we look for comfort in Matthew’s account, we should remember a few things.
For one, keep in mind that it is Jesus who sends the Apostles onto the lake. In a sense, he sent them into the storm. For another, remember that he was with them all the time, even though the situation was utterly terrifying: a very small boat, a very big lake; and a long, long way to the bottom.
In our present moment in the Church, we can see the storm we are experiencing in the tragedy of sexual abuse. In terms of our country, we are involved in a very difficult and very tragic situation in Iraq.
There are moments of storms in marriages and families. Jobs are lost. Violence. Terrorism touches families around the globe. Lives broken in so many ways: All of these are storms that touch us deeply, that can terrify us, that can test our trust in God’s presence.
In Matthew’s account of this story, Jesus goes up the mountain to pray as he sends forth the Apostles. He has his own storm to face as his Passion and death approach.
As we celebrate this year of the Eucharist, we are reminded of how important this sacrament is as we face the storms of life. The Eucharist is a powerful but gentle reminder: We must be grounded in this sacrament, which is the summit and source of our spiritual journey. Eucharist provides food for the journey, keeps our spiritual feet firmly on the ground, calms our fears, and gives us a sense of perspective as we continue Jesus’ sacrifice for us and for all of humanity. As we receive Body of Christ, we are reminded that we, too, are the body of Christ. Through witness and example, we share his Presence with our world.
Sometimes we, too, bear the marks of our struggles and storms, just as Jesus did. Remember: After his Resurrection, he still carried the marks of the nails in his hands and feet, and the slash of a spear in his side.
In Matthew’s story of the storm, Peter gets dunked. He is terrified. Remember that Jesus didn’t spare him that experience. All that the Lord wanted from Peter was faith – trust in God. Sometimes that trust and belief will carry us to our deaths. Just look at the examples of the martyrs. Sometimes, we can be deeply scarred from a horrific experience such as sexual abuse, or rape. The attempt to process such events can be storm all its own. Still, the Lord invites us to believe, to have faith.
In the world in which all of us live, the invitation of Jesus in constant: “Come!” Come to Eucharist. Come to him.
May all of us, to the best of our ability, respond.
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