April 17, 2009


Staying focused on mission during challenging times

In his pastoral letter “The Church Sharing!,” Bishop David A. Zubik reflects on a story of Pittsburgh during the Great Depression:

“On July 24, 1931, just an hour after everyone had gone to sleep, fire broke out at a home for the needy elderly people operated by the Little Sisters of the Poor. Forty-nine of the elderly poor would be killed by that fire, another 175 injured.

“The city was shocked by the horror of it all. In too many ways, it summed up the tragedy of the Depression itself. Innocent victims consumed by something that they didn’t understand, couldn’t control, hadn’t caused. The bodies of those who died were taken away for burial by relatives. All, that is, except for eight victims, who lay in the morgue, unknown and unclaimed. Homeless folks with nowhere else to go, they had been forgotten outside the walls of their last shelter.

“Bishop Hugh Boyle brought their bodies to Saint Paul Cathedral, where he would preside at their funeral Mass. And then something amazing happened.

“At that Mass, eight homeless and poor folk, whose past was known only to God, were remembered by one of the largest crowds ever to gather at Saint Paul Cathedral. The people of the city filled every pew. They spilled out onto the sidewalks and streets. It was as if the city itself was coming together to come to terms with its grief over the fire and, perhaps even more so, to come to terms with the Depression itself.

“The story does not end there. A week after the funeral, Bishop Boyle went on the radio—the first Pittsburgh bishop to do so—to ask for help. The Little Sisters of the Poor and those whom they served were homeless. It may have seemed a fool’s errand at a time when so many had nothing to even care for their own. But the bishop asked for donations to build a new home for the sisters and those they served. He said they would need $300,000 to rebuild. Within three months, the people of Pittsburgh contributed that, and more [more than $30 million in today’s dollars!].”

What would have happened in Pittsburgh during the Great Depression if Bishop Boyle had said, “Those eight homeless people are not our problem”?

The mission of the Church would have been stifled. Christ, in the persons of the eight unknown, unclaimed victims, would not have been anointed with oil or buried in the tomb. The Cathedral of St. Paul would have been empty, and there would have been no crowd to receive the Body of Christ that day.

What if Bishop Boyle had said, “I can’t ask people for money now. They don’t have it, and they’ll resent me for trying to pick their empty pockets”? The loaves and fish would not have been multiplied. The crowd would not have been fed. The elderly poor would have had no home, no Little Sisters of the Poor to care for them.

Staying focused on the Church’s mission helps us respond to short term challenges. The temptation (always) is to freeze, to stop dead in our tracks, and wait out the storm.

The problem with this approach is that the Church, the Body of Christ, cannot put its mission on hold.

We are called to preach the Good News at all times, and in all seasons, but our preaching is more important than ever when people are in danger of losing hope.

We are called to be the arms and legs of Jesus Christ always and everywhere, but the healing ministry of our Lord is more important than ever when people are hurting or afraid or in need of authentic charity, the love of God in action.

If our mission is properly aligned with what the Lord is calling us to be and do as the Church, there is no way we can wait out the storm. Our methods may have to change, our resources may be more limited, and our strategies may have to be adjusted to fit changing circumstances, but our commitment to proclaim God’s kingdom, and to be the seed and beginning of that kingdom here and now, must be stronger than ever.

In The YES of Jesus Christ, Pope Benedict XVI tells us that even after the most tragic catastrophes of history, “God remains God: He remains good with indestructible goodness. He remains the redeemer in whose hands man’s destructive and cruel activity is transformed by his love.

“Man is not the only actor on the stage of human history, and that is why death does not have the last word in it. The fact that there is this other person who is active is alone the firm and certain anchor of a hope that is stronger and more real than all the frightfulnesses of the world.”

Jesus Christ is the one true hope. And the only source of lasting joy.

May this Easter season bring us all closer to the firm and certain anchor of his hope! May the gift of his love empower us to proclaim the kingdom without hesitation or fear during these challenging times. That in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. (1 Pt 4:11)

—Daniel Conway

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