“But in the heart of all this turmoil, we must not be demoralized; if men have the power to destroy, Our Lord’s hand is infinitely more powerful to build. We need only be faithful to Him and let Him work.” —Attributed to St. François de Laval, first bishop of Quebec (1623-1708)
It seems that every generation claims to live in tumultuous times. In the Lord’s grand design of things, we can never become demoralized because during the swirl of difficulty, Christ is present. I read the book, Generating Traces Throughout History by Luigi Giussani. “Because things are made of Christ and the only schema of the world is the Father’s plan and it has a name – Christ.” (p.113) The struggles we all face are not new but the way in which we adhere to those struggles, the way in which we remain faithful to those struggles is reflected how we are steadfast in God’s love for us. There are many examples of Catholic greats who faced this adversity. I find that I am told to trust in God but that is exactly what I find difficult to do.
Where Can I Turn?
There are many great examples in history that show us nothing is impossible with God.
One example that I have come across is the first Bishop of Toronto, Michael Power. Canada, in those heady days, was sparsely populated and even less populated by Catholics. The original diocese of Toronto only had about 50,000 Catholics and possibly 3000 lived in Toronto as it accepted Irish famine refugees who mostly died while traveling to Canada from the fever. During this crisis, arrived a bishop who defended the rights of Catholics, the refugees, and the poor in that fledgling diocese. Catholics were not so well received in the city, yet Michael Power was determined to build St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica in downtown Toronto. The immigrants were poor, and the Catholic population struggled, but in this man was hope. Sometimes hope is something that we lack but it is not impossible. One day, while the Cathedral was being renovated, I saw the workers mulling around for lunch. I heard the Irish accents amongst the laughter. I asked them where there were from and the answer – Dublin came out quickly. The irony of this encounter was the Irish immigrants who built the Cathedral with what little they had was being renovated and restored 150 years later by similar Irish workers. Michael Power has been put on the road to sainthood because he was a great local witness to trust in the Lord. He died of fever while caring for the sick refugees on the lakeshore in Toronto. He was only 42.
St. John Neumann
“Everyone who breathes, high and low, educated and ignorant, young and old, man and woman, has a mission, has a work. We are not sent into this world for nothing; we are not born at random; we are not here, that we may go to bed at night and get up in the morning, toil for our bread, eat and drink, laugh and joke, sin when we have a mind, and reform when we are tired of sinning, rear a family and die. God sees every one of us; He creates every soul, …for a purpose. He needs, He deigns to need every one of us. He has an end for each of us; we are all equal in His sight, and we are placed in our different ranks and stations, not to get what we can out of them for ourselves, but to labor in them for Him. As Christ has worked, we too have but to labor in them for Him. As Christ has His work, we too have ours; as He rejoiced to do his work, we must rejoice in ours also.” ~ St. John Neumann
Such was a man who was the fourth Bishop of Philadelphia. He came to the USA with dreams of becoming a priest since his native Bohemia had an abundance of priests. Most people arrive in the USA to find their fortune, but John Neumann was looking for treasure of a different kind. In his journey to the US, he made his way to Rochester and Buffalo and found many German speaking Catholics yearning for spiritual care. He was such a simple man yet full of faith. I happened to be staying at Gethsemani Monastery in Kentucky when I chanced upon a book of his life in the library. I could not put it down. I read it from cover to cover. He was a slight man, and arriving in the USA in upstate New York, he really needed to trust. There is a story that he had fallen asleep, and some Indigenous people had found him and helped him along his way
From these humble beginnings, he was noticed for his efforts and was asked to be the fourth Bishop of Philadelphia. In those days. the diocesan parishes were administered by laity who were quite wealthy. He began building churches and parishes at the rate of almost one per month. The Parochial school system ballooned from 500 to 9000 in such a short time. He was shot, and maybe even a little awkward and he was determined not to draw attention to himself. He gave away gifts intended for him, and he even asked for a transfer out of the diocese at one point because of the difficulties he encountered both within the local church and from the anti-Catholic opposition. All the while, he encouraged his priests and faithful to stand firm. What a great man! And he was canonized for his efforts, not because the Church made him a saint, but because the Lord had used him for greatness.
“The Witness of evangelical charity that Blessed Sterni Gaetana left us reminds each believer of the need to seek the will of God in confident abandonment to Him and in generous service to one’s brothers and sisters.” St. John Paul II.
Here is another example of piety and simplicity that one can only dream to emulate. Gaetana lived well for a time and saw her mother’s faith. However, her sister died and then her father’s death left the family in dire straits. Once her old brother left to become an actor, Gaetana needed to assume responsibility very quickly. She eventually married a rich suitor, Liberale Conte. He was a widower with three children. She was pregnant when her husband died, then her child died not long after the birth. Her husband’s family asked for the children back to be raised by them alone. Gaetana found herself alone and penniless and she returned to her mother.
Her search continued and she asked her confessor for help. Sometimes, when we want to be accompanied, it is important for us to accompany others in their needs and then we might feel less alone. My impression of Gaetana is just this. She was free from all obligations at age 26 and from this great need to be helped she began to help others. In her humility, she followed God’s will and initiated the Daughters of the Divine Will. She impressed upon her followers, “to be disposed and content to put up with privations, fatigue and any sacrifice to help your neighbour in need in all that the Lord might want of them”. From her misery and sadness, greatness emerged.
One can only aspire to the kind of greatness in just these three examples of faith. What witnesses we need for our time! The dark days of the pandemic and the never-ending round of restrictions we experience would leave anyone cynical or frustrated. However, I read about such simple yet great workers in the vineyard of Christ, that I am left astonishment as to how to follow such greatness. Faith is a gift, yet it is also something to nurture and grow. I cannot do this alone nor would I dare to. God’s hand is firm.