Last Sunday, August 4, was the feast day of St. John Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests. Last Sunday marked the 160th anniversary of the death of St. John Vianney, and Pope Francis took the occasion to issue a letter to all priests. In this letter, the Holy Father thanked the priests who have been serving “in the trenches” and have carried out with fidelity their mission of service to God and to the faithful. He wrote the letter to encourage us who have at times felt attacked and blamed for crimes we did not commit. In the letter, the Pope recognizes the frustration and outrage at what has happened with the abuse scandal and how those who live in solidarity with the victims feel their pain and desire to find words and actions capable of inspiring hope. The Pope asks us to examine how we face suffering. There is a temptation, he says, to to take refuge in the attitude of fatalism: “That’s life…” or “Nothing can be done” or to retreat to some sort of safe haven. He warns against a sadness with life – a sadness that paralyzes our desire to persevere in our work and prayer. This attitude breeds discouragement, desolation, and despair. This sadness, he says, “can turn into a habit and lead us slowly to accept evil and injustice by quietly telling ourselves: “It has always been like this.” [It is] a sadness that stifles every effort at change and conversion by sowing resentment and hostility. When that “sweet sorrow” threatens to take hold of our lives or our communities, he says, “let us together beg the Spirit to rouse us from our torpor, to free us from our inertia. Let us rethink our usual way of doing things; let us open our eyes and ears, and above all our hearts, so as not to be complacent about things as they are, but unsettled by the living and effective word of the risen Lord.” Our mission, as priests, is to proclaim “good news of great joy for all the people” (Lk 2:10). How do we proclaim the “good news”? Pope Francis continues: “Not by presenting intellectual theories or moral axioms about the way things ought to be, but as men who in the midst of pain have been transformed and transfigured by the Lord, so as to say about the Lord, “I have seen you with my own eyes” (Job 42:2). What proclaims the Gospel – that Christ is present in the world, is the witness of someone who comes to faith, perseveres in faith, doesn’t lose hope, and generates something beautiful in the face of suffering and death. This person of faith, transformed by the fire of suffering, who generates peace, joy, and new life in the midst of pain, “is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen” (Heb 11:1). Persons of faith – those who have been changed by God’s grace – are signs that a greater power is a work in the world.
I find the words of Pope Francis very helpful in light of the devastating mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, that happened the same weekend his letter was issued. We are tempted to fall into despair or shrug these all too frequent events off as “the new normal” and think nothing really can be done to stop another from happening again. It doesn’t take too much digging to see the sadness and despair in the lives of the shooters that found expression in resentment and hostility and eventual violence. We don’t want to go there ourselves. “If we are assailed by sadness at life, at the company of others or at our own isolation, it is because we lack faith in God’s providence and his works…”
This Friday, August 9th, was the anniversary of the dropping of the atom bomb on Nagasaki, Japan in 1945. Conservative estimates put the death toll at 80,000. (The bomb on Hiroshima August 6 killed upwards of 120,000 people). On Friday, I spent the day with some priest friends. One of my friends just finished reading the book, “A Song for Nagasaki” which tells the story of Takashi Nagai, a Japanese radiologist and convert to Catholicism who survived the bombing in Nagasaki. Having grown up with the Shinto religion, Nagai adopted atheism as a medical student. He became attracted to Christianity through the woman who would become his wife – Midori – the daughter of his landlord. In this family where he found lodging, Nagai experienced an atmosphere of joy. He was moved not by an “ideal”, a teaching, or a philosophy, but by the lives and goodness of those around him who were living this “foreign religion.” He wrote, “I felt instinctively that there was a loving presence in this community.” Midori invited him to midnight Mass. Observing the faithful singing and praying, he said, “I felt somebody close to me whom I did not know.” As a young doctor, Nagai was drafted into the Army and served as a physician in the conflict with China in the 1930s. He was greatly shaken by what he witnessed in the war, and upon returning home, spoke to the priest at the Cathedral, and received instruction for baptism. As a radiologist, Nagai was exposed to a great deal of radiation and developed leukemia. He was given 3 years to live. When the bomb hit, Nagai was working at the hospital. 80% of the patients were killed in the blast, and Nagai was left badly bleeding. He attended to the wounded and those who came to the hospital. When he returned to his home, he found the charred bones of his wife still holding her rosary beads. Nagai lost much that summer of 1945, but he embraced the cross that unexpectedly came to meet him. He was transformed. Soon after the blast, the exposure to the radiation weakened him so that he was confined to a bed. He spent the rest of his life studying the effects of radiation, writing about his experience, praying, contemplating, and writing books for his children. His witness and writing became a source of healing in Japan, and he was recognized world-wide as a promoter of peace. Dr. Nagai died in 1951 at the age of 43. His cause for sainthood has been opened.
We need to pay attention to the witnesses of faith that emerge from the tragedies all around us and continue to go forth with hope. What they do, like the witness of Abraham, is reasonable because of who they met – the God who brings forth life from a man who was “as good as dead”. Let’s hear Jesus speaking to us today, “Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom.” We are all called to be like pilgrims on the journey – ready to go out and look ahead, not back, with eyes open for the Lord and what he will build. May we be open to the Lord when he knocks for the kingdom comes in unexpected way. And the Lord is coming to give, not to take away. To care for us and to provide.