October 23, 2009

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Helping our neighbors requires a heart open to God’s grace

When Pope Benedict XVI visited the United States in April of 2008, he chose “Christ Our Hope” as the theme of his pastoral visit. He recognized that our culture seeks hope.

When we decided to renew our annual stewardship appeal, we considered what our archdiocesan mission offers to people in need.

Our mission of caring offers a threefold hope: proclaiming the Gospel and the teaching of Jesus, celebrating the sacraments, and participating in the ministry of charity. Pope Benedict says these tasks are of the essence of the Church, and they are inseparable.

What the Catholic Church in central and southern Indiana offers is unique. We offer the Gospel as a source of healing freedom. We provide the sacraments as a source of strength and spiritual healing. And our ministries of charity offer people in need Christ’s compassionate love.

It is sometimes difficult to make the connection between our Catholic faith and identity, and what at times we call “real life.” Our threefold task of proclaiming God’s word and the teaching of Jesus, and our participation in the sacraments and doing the ministry of charity sound right, but translating them into daily living is a challenge. We are especially challenged when things aren’t going so good for us.

I’ll have to admit there were times after I was diagnosed with cancer that I would wonder, “Why me?”

Maybe God was trying to get me to slow down and be a little more reflective about our mission. Maybe he was trying to make me a better archbishop by having me identify more completely with sick and suffering people. Or maybe God was just calling me to accept the fact that he is in charge and to surrender in faith.

To be honest, I don’t know what God had in mind for me. I can share one thing I learned from going through this: What God really wants from all of us is our love in exchange with his love. Love is our primary vocation as baptized Christians.

When we love God with all of our heart, soul and mind then his grace makes it possible to carry out the threefold task that we received in baptism. Then we can love our neighbor. With God, it is always possible to move beyond our preoccupations, and even our own pain, so that we can reach out to help ease the burdens of others.

It was helpful when I was dealing with cancer to have many people write to tell me that they were praying for me. Many shared stories of their own battles with cancer or asked me to pray for them or someone in their family who was suffering from cancer. At times, it was especially heartbreaking to hear from families whose children were fighting cancer or to hear from a parent who was exhausted from the physical toll that the cancer treatments were taking on them. And yet, they were going to work every day because they needed to support their family.

Hearing these stories was difficult, and yet it was a gift because it kept me from becoming isolated and only focused on my own problem. These stories were a bridge that connected me to the suffering of others.

The burdens and crosses we have to bear in our lives can turn us inward and separate us from one another, or they can make us more open to the truth that God has a plan for each of us.

How much less hope would we have in our own lives if we failed to answer Christ’s call to love another? Can we really afford to turn a blind eye to those in need around us? We all share the responsibility to look after each other, especially those in grave need. Our responsibility is measured by the blessings that are ours.

One of the great demands of charity is the call to care for those we don’t know and will probably never know. It is one of the challenges of the Christ Our Hope annual appeal. When I think about caring for those we don’t know, I think of Simon of Cyrene.

Simon of Cyrene was pulled out of the crowd to help Jesus carry his Cross. It was unlikely that Simon even knew who Jesus was. He had to be a reluctant helper in the beginning but, along the way to Calvary, divine Providence made it a conversion experience.

Might we feel like Simon of Cyrene when we are called to help someone we don’t know? It requires a heart open to the power of God’s grace.

Our challenge is to continue to try to overcome the natural self-centeredness that nudges us to sidestep opportunities to help our unknown neighbors. †

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