by Msgr. Joseph Calise
EVERY ONCE IN a while, we meet someone challengingly inspiring. I do not mean someone who necessarily has a high office or who is well known – although people like Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day and Pope Francis would certainly be inspirational – I mean someone who simply does brave things as they live out their faith. I am thinking in particular of a young woman I met through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). She was a non-Christian who married a Catholic man and had a child. The more she learned about Catholicism, the more convinced she was of its truth and the more determined she became not only to pass the Christian message to her child but to publically profess it as well. As she progressed in the program, she began to reveal more of her background and fears. Her family was part of a militant religious tradition. If they learned of her decisions, her brothers would have killed her, her husband and their baby. There is also a good chance that any of us involved in her Catholic education and the administering of the sacraments would also have been in danger. Being true to her understanding of the truth compelled her to do what she had to do and sacrifice communication with her family to follow Christ as her heart and conscience dictated.
I am grateful that I met her and remain inspired by the depth of her conviction. I have no idea how often people of faith are challenged to make these sacrifices, but I suspect that it was rather common in the time of Christ. With Christianity new and radical, those who opted for Christ were also moving away from their tradition and possibly sacrificing family, prestige and reputation. When Christ tells His disciples that households will be divided in His name, He was speaking quite literally. For most of us, however, faith and its practices are fairly secure. There will always be debate over the separation of Church and state, and the line distinguishing legal questions and moral ones will remain a fine one. But, most of us have been able to attend Mass, receive communion, go to confession, baptize babies – in general, practice our faith without negative consequence.
The closest I came to any danger was while I was a student at the North American College. Since we were technically citizens of the Vatican, we were able to secure permission to enter into Russia before its borders became open. A group of us were able to make the trip during Holy Week in 1979. Although it was impossible to find a Catholic Church that was open to the public and functioning as more than a museum, we were determined to celebrate the Easter Vigil. Since large groups congregating in hotel space was not allowed, we ended up having several celebrations in different rooms. We were quite aware that if our “secret rituals” were discovered, those of us in the room could have been arrested. It was unlikely that the government would have been that concerned with a handful of seminarians and even more unlikely that it would want to deal with the complications of arresting a group of American students traveling with Vatican visas. Nonetheless, in looking back it offered us the opportunity to experience the feeling of risk that Jesus promises people of faith in today’s Gospel. It is almost violent when Jesus speaks of setting the world on fire. Believing in God’s love, we have to ask, “What is this flame Jesus wants to ignite?” The answer, I believe, comes from a very unlikely source.
In the mid-1960s, one of the most controversial music groups was The Doors. Most of their notoriety was occasioned by their lead singer, Jim Morrison. The most famous story involves their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. They were to sing their hit song, “Light My Fire” but were asked to change one line, which could have been interpreted as referring to drugs. Although the band agreed, Morrison did not change the line and the limitations of live TV made covering it over impossible. This resulted in Sullivan’s refusal to shake his hand as he left the stage and the understanding that they would never be on the Ed Sullivan Show again. Nonetheless, they continued on to stardom, and the song became a hit. Even though their story did not have a happy ending, the song can be understood to have a very powerful message. The chorus reads, “Come on baby, light my fire/Come on baby, light my fire/Try to set the night on fire.” It is a call to living with passion and purpose. If we take this understanding of “fire” and apply it to the words of Christ, He is calling us to be people of faith with a Passion for Whom and what we believe – a passion that would willingly face rejection and suffering if called upon.
There are many places in the world where faith cannot be exercised with freedom. As we pray and work for change in places of oppression, it serves us well to take the opportunity to ask whether the freedom we enjoy promotes complacency, allowing us to take for granted what is so easily ours, or if our freedom promotes gratitude and zeal. Christ invites us to respond passionately to His love as He sets the world on fire.
[hr]Readings for the 20th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Jeremiah 38: 4-6, 8-10
Psalm 40: 2, 3, 4, 18
Hebrews 12: 1-4
Luke 12: 49-53[hr]
Msgr. Joseph Calise is the pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish, Williamsburg.