They keep their eyes on Jesus, learning to see His eyes in those of our brothers and sisters
By Bishop Richard F. Stika
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus. — Hebrews 12:1
These words of St. Paul come to mind when I look up inside the dome of our new cathedral and see the progress being made with the frescoes depicting 16 saints of the Church representing various times, nationalities, and ethnicities.
As a part of the vast cloud of witnesses special to our diocesan community, they stand between us here below and Jesus enthroned above them. And with the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph on either side of Christ, along with the 12 Apostles around Him, we are reminded that the saints of heaven help us in this life to draw ever closer to Jesus and to become, like them, God’s special helpers to others.
Have you stood beside a saint?
I have — St. John Paul II — and undoubtedly many more than I know of whom the Church has yet to officially recognize, but who are saints nonetheless. Saints are not just in heaven, but walk among us, though we often do not recognize them as such. I know that when I first met a Vietnamese cardinal in Rome over 25 years ago while waiting to meet St. John Paul II, I did not recognize him as a saint living among us.
But Pope Francis recently recognized the heroic virtue of Venerable Cardinal François-Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, who I pray will soon be declared Blessed.
In 1975, then-Archbishop Van Thuan was arrested by the communist regime in Vietnam and imprisoned for 13 years, nine of them in solitary confinement. Even after his release and exile, Cardinal Van Thuan continued to suffer the effects of his harsh imprisonment until his death in 2002.
What I find so inspiring about him is that though he knew he would be arrested and likely imprisoned, he did not run away — he stayed close to his flock. And during his long and torturous imprisonment,
Cardinal Van Thuan didn’t wait in hope for a better day to come, but chose instead to live each moment, no matter how dark, “brimming with love.”
Instead of living these harsh moments and sufferings in bitterness and anguish, he used them as opportunities to be the love and mercy of Christ crucified to others.
Many of his fellow prisoners were touched and converted by his unwavering witness of love, and so, too, were his atheist prison guards. In him, they encountered Christ.
Here I am reminded of the life of the first native-born martyr from the United States who the Church will call “Blessed” on Sept. 23: Father Stanley Rother, a missionary priest who was martyred in Guatemala in 1981 at age 46.
Though he failed his first year of seminary studies and was counseled to consider another vocation, Father Rother, a man of strong prayer with a love for the rosary, would not give up so easily.
In a beautiful book about his life titled The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run, Archbishop Paul Coakley of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City wrote in its introduction, saying, “Saints are local. They come from ordinary families, parishes and communities, but their impact is universal. They belong to the whole Church. They remind us that holiness is our fundamental vocation.
Saints represent the full flowering of the grace of our baptism.” Such was Father Rother, and such we are called to be.
What impresses me most about Father Rother’s story in Guatemala is that, quite simply, he lived and preached Jesus Christ. He didn’t preach a cause, an ideology of progress or politics, but strived daily to give the people he lived among and served what their hearts most needed and desired: Christ Jesus.
These were very dangerous times in Guatemala, and he knew the risks of being a pastor of souls.
Even after his name appeared on a “death list,” Father Rother chose to remain among his people — he did not run away.
Another priest who will be beatified on Nov. 18 in Detroit is Capuchin Father Solanus Casey, who died in 1957 at age 87. Like Father Rother, Father Casey struggled with his seminary studies and seemed quite unremarkable.
But from a deep love for Christ in the Eucharist, his priesthood blossomed. Known for his great compassion and love for the poor and the infirm of body and soul, people from near and far sought him out. Many healings — physical and spiritual — were attributed to him during his lifetime and continue to be reported even after his death.
Father Casey loved to preach Christ Jesus and to help souls to turn back to God and to keep their eyes focused upon Jesus.
Father Patrick Ryan, a heroic priest of our own diocese, also was not much a student of academics or theology, but great was his love for others because of his love for Christ.
When the great yellow fever epidemic hit Chattanooga in 1878, Servant of God Father Ryan did not flee the city like so many others did, but remained to minister and care for the sick and dying in the worst-infected areas, succumbing to the disease himself on Sept. 28, 1878.
Saints don’t run away.
What does this mean? As the examples above show us, we need to keep our “eyes fixed on Jesus” no matter the times or circumstances.
Saints, through their witness and intercession, help us to look to Jesus, to place our wounds within His, to suffer with Him, and to drink of His love and mercy from His pierced side.
We are not alone for we have this great cloud of witnesses as our special helpers.
And no one around us should ever feel alone so long as we keep our eyes on Jesus and learn to see His eyes in those of our brothers and sisters.