Do you choose a saint for each year? I do. There are varying degrees of success regarding how much I learn about this saint or how often I ask for the saint’s particular intercession, but I like to try to pick a saint as a patron for the year.
For the past couple of years I have used Jennifer Fulwiler’s saint name generator. Whenever a saint comes up and I am completely unfamiliar with them, there is always the desire to pick a new one, a better one. Sometimes I do, especially if there is nearly nothing known about the saint. However, during a good year, I pick up a book about my new saint for the year and try to learn something about them.
The website gave me the name “St. Rose Philippine Duchesne” as my saint for the year. I looked up a short biography online to see if she made the cut and would really be my patron. As I read about her desire to be a missionary and living through the French Revolution and then journeying to the Americas, I was struck by a particular section near the end of the article.
Venerable Francis Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận spent thirteen years imprisoned in Communist Vietnam without receiving a trial. Of those thirteen years, nine were spent in solitary confinement. The prison conditions he suffered in makes the prison I go to for prison ministry look like a luxurious hotel. From his cell being so humid that mushrooms grew on his sleeping mat to his cell light being left on (or off) for days at a time, Venerable Francis suffered in ways I cannot fathom.
Yet from this suffering emerges a life shaped and formed in the crucible of humiliation. Despite the hatred of his persecutors, he continued to seek after the Lord. Years after being released from prison, Venerable Francis wrote Five Loaves and Two Fish, a simple yet profound book based on his experiences in prison. While most of us cannot relate to the particulars of his life, the truths that emerge are ones that ought to resonate deeply with each of us.
The general theme of his book, as you may have guessed, is based on the Gospel where the little boy offers the little he has (five loaves and two fish) to feed the multitudes present. The boy doesn’t know how it will be enough, but he trusts that offering it to the Lord is what he is called to do. Venerable Francis focuses on the little that we can do to offer ourselves to the Lord. He went from an active ministry as a bishop, serving God’s people with energy and zeal to a life imprisoned, unable to speak to his flock or do the work God was allowing him to do before. Yet even in this lack, or perhaps especially in this lack, he finds that God is still working, just not as he expected.
The book is short and beautiful, so I recommend getting a copy and pouring over the simple truths found in it. But I wanted to highlight two points that stood out to me.
The first truth Francis shares is to live in the present moment. Honestly, if I were confined to a cell for nine years, I might be inclined to live in anywhere but the present moment. The perspective Francis has is, “If I spend my time waiting, perhaps the things I look forward to will never happen. The only thing certain to come is death.” Keeping in mind where he found himself when he considered those words, it was reasonable for Francis to assume he would not survive prison. He chose to embrace the moment and do what he could with what he had.
Through the smuggling efforts of a seven-year-old, Francis sent out messages of hope that he composed during the night. He focused on filling each moment to the brim with love, concentrating on each gesture toward the guards being as loving as possible. The fruit of this was the conversion of many guards. Initially, they rotated the guards often so that he wouldn’t convert them, but then they decided to keep the same ones with him so he would convert as few as possible.
I was listening to one of the first podcasts released by Brandon Vogt and Fr. Blake Britton on their new podcast called “The Burrowshire Podcast.” It was about the call to be saints and they spoke about how although at times they both find themselves desiring to live in different time periods, they were created with souls for now. In fact, it is God’s desire that they be saints right now, in the midst of everything good and bad that surrounds them.
As someone who often feels old (not age-wise, but like from a different era), I resonate with the lingering desire to be alive at a different point in human history. Yet God isn’t mistaken in placing me in this very particular point in time, complete with my longings and desires for things of bygone eras. I suppose many of the saints felt the same way, too. But to consider that I have a soul that is crafted for this point in history is something I hadn’t yet considered.
What does that even mean?
I appreciate the intentionality that this reveals about the Lord’s actions. With our own unique gifts and talents, we were fashioned to be alive today. Instead of misfits from a different age, we are exactly where (and when) we ought to be. Which means holiness is possible now. In fact, for us, holiness in the present is the only option. Despite my feelings to the contrary, I wasn’t fashioned to be holy in a different time period. With all of my intricacies, failings, and strengths, I was created to be holy here and now.
I don’t believe I ever had as much gratitude for the generous mercy of God as when I started volunteering at the prison.
Over the years, I have perhaps struggled with accepting that I cannot disappoint God or realizing the unplumbable depths of God’s particular love for me. But, in many ways, I never felt that I strayed too far from God. I never stopped going to Mass or turned away from the faith. In college, I was delving into my faith when many of my peers were shaking the Church’s dust from their feet. So I never really had to confront the question of “Can God forgive me for this?” and I say that without any pride knowing that I fail in many, many ways.
Standing before men in prison, though, I am encountering some men who have committed truly heinous crimes. There are men in for drug charges or robbery or embezzlement. And then I’m with men who committed crimes against women and children, in a variety of circumstances and situations. I also find myself with men who have murdered others or conspired to murder people or have attempted to murder others. Regardless their crimes, I am able to confidently extend the mercy of God to them.
There are times when I am in the disciplinary unit, talking with the men cell-front with a couple of other volunteers, and I find myself filled with profound awe over the gift of salvation. I don’t have to ask what sins they have committed to know if the Lord desires to be in relationship with them. If I find myself repelled by their sins or crimes, I know the Lord still yearns for their soul and to pour His love generously upon them. It causes me to experience again the immensity of the Lord’s love. There is no question about if He loves any person I meet in prison. That expansiveness causes me to stand there and just be awed by how the Lord never stops pursuing our hearts.
So often I find that when I am teaching my students, I am actually teaching myself. I listen to the words come out of my mouth and find that I am convicted to live in a new way. It isn’t as though I talk about the Gospel and the Lord all day long and pat myself on the back. Rather, I find myself over and over having to admit that I am falling short of living the Good News fully.
One of my classes is finishing up a section on martyrs. They researched fairly recent martyrs with most of them living at some point during the 1900s. Then I showed two videos from Chris Stefanick about two priests who lived boldly during times of war. One priest was Fr. Emil Kapaun and the other was Fr. Vincent Capodanno, both of whom are at various stages of the canonization process.
Each video revealed how these men offered hope in situations that seemed hopeless. Fr. Kapaun became a POW during the Korean War and Fr. Capodanno died in a battle in the Vietnam War. In spite of persecution, Fr. Kapaun encouraged the men, leading them in prayer and risking his own safety to help them survive. As a war raged, Fr. Capodanno ran across the battlefield, offering last rites to wounded soldiers and bringing tangible peace with his presence and words. Their ability to provide hope in war changed the people they encountered. For some, it saved their lives and for others, it brought a calm in the midst of the storm.
As we reflected on these priests in class, I found myself inviting them (and by extension myself) to be hope-bearers in this world. High school can be such a difficult place for them, but the frustrations they experience are often carried into life beyond high school. What if they were people that others found hope in? What if we were able to provide a calm in the midst of the storm? A battle rages around us: wouldn’t it be beautiful if others found a place to rest when they were in our presence?
I was recently introduced to the Polish poet Anna Kamienska. As I walked the streets of Rome, post-crepe from a nearby shop, I read a poem she wrote about St. Edith Stein. It was providential because I have rather recently become quite intrigued with the life of Edith Stein. By all accounts, we have little in common and yet I can identify with her unasked for period of waiting for her desires to be fulfilled. I can only ask that I endure all future waiting with the hope and attentiveness to the present moment that she did.
So I read the words about Edith Stein, someone whose life overlapped Anna Kamienska’s, and wondered about this poet. I like poetry that uses surprising yet fitting word choice, poetry that paints rich pictures, poetry that points to a deeper truth in a perhaps unconventional way. I don’t like poetry that confuses me or seems to not make sense or offers no beauty. Reading through Anna Kamienska’s selected works in Astonishments, I have found several poems that I believe I will ponder, appreciate, and re-read during the upcoming days and weeks.
The one I’d like to direct your attention to is called “Gratitude”–something I am certain I will need to return to once the fall semester starts all-too-soon.