I looked out my window this morning, and under a late-blooming dogwood tree stood a new St. Francis statue. Like so many other depictions, he was clean-shaven, holding a small dish for the birds to feast, with wild and tame animals resting at his side.
It dawned to me at this moment that today was the feast of one of my favorite saints. Like many other days this year, my sense of the calendar is confused and at times, lost in the imbalance.
As I stared at this generous representation of an almost 800-year old historical and heavenly figure, my thoughts turned not to the familiar but to the uncomfortable. I did not find solace in his legendary tales or in my own uplifting Franciscan spiritual journey. I found conflict and deep yearning.
I looked within and wondered how am I in relationship with God, and with neighbor and stranger alike?
How am I responding to the brokenness, the division, the injustice?
How might God be calling me to be a louder instrument of peace?
Francis, in his life-well-lived was often overwhelmed by the spiritual and physical poverty that filled the streets of Assisi. His conversion to rebuild God’s Church meant a re-imagining of society, honoring simplicity and service with a community of like-minded people. He yearned for the deepest relationship with God- finding the divine in brother sun, sister moon, and the leper along the broken road.
The legacy of Francis occurred with the backdrop of war and injustice. Only because of his deep relationship with God, could he write, “All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.”
That divine candle that shined within Francis shines within us. It is our birthright. The difference between Francis and so many of us is that he truly believed it.
Most years, the feast day of this great saint is often accompanied by celebrations with a look to the past. This year is different, and so is this reflection as it calls us to action. It is time to shine our light even brighter.
“We have been called to heal wounds, to unite what has fallen apart, and to bring home those who have lost their way,” Francis tells us. This direction is heard within the division, the suffering, and the confusion that these days present.
It is easy to relate to the man who loved animals, who joyfully danced in the fields, and who sang to the heavens. It is much harder, and might I write, more important and timely, to join his journey toward justice, solidarity, and unconditional love.
As this feast day comes to a close, God-willing tomorrow awaits us. Might these words from our beloved companion ignite your day and your life:
“Lord, help me to live this day, quietly, easily. To lean upon Thy great strength, trustfully, restfully. To wait for the unfolding of Thy will, patiently, serenely. To meet others, peacefully, joyously. To face tomorrow, confidently, courageously.”
Vincent and Chiara, two extraordinary individuals who transformed the world, sit around a small table, sipping Italian coffee and breaking French bread.
Vincent de Paul, a French priest in the 16th and 17th centuries, established several communities to serve and love the poor. Chiara Lubich, an author and spiritual leader in the 20th and 21st centuries, established a community rooted in unity and love, especially in ecumenical, interreligious and intercultural dialogue.
During this exchange, they listen attentively to one another. They share the same love for Jesus, and an allied commitment to discovering God in neighbor and stranger alike.
Vincent recalls being overcome with emotion as he heard the confession of a dying servant, visiting the imprisoned, and seeing so many children and adults lacking basic needs.
Chiara relates, sharing how she and her companions sought shelter from the bombs of World War II, creating a new way rooted in the love of the God.
They recount the overwhelming amount of poverty, war, destruction, injustice, and pain that served as the backdrop to their lives. After taking another sip of their coffee, they reflect on those moments where they found their purpose in healing wounds. They recall their companions who united with them to serve and to love.
The conversation continues, shifting to looking at us- the millions who continue as branches of their trees of life.
As kindred members of the Vincentian and Focolare movements serve in the spirit of living the Gospel message, Vincent and Chiara are moved by the willingness of these generations of pilgrims who commit to living this “divine adventure,” as Chiara called it.
Vincent and Chiara are impressed in how these movements provide an “inventive love,” as Vincent called it, to respond to the needs of the world- many of which are similar to the needs in which Vincent and Chiara responded.
Chiara’s words echo still in the hearts of her followers: “Let our thoughts and the affection of our hearts go beyond the barriers imposed by our human vision of life, and develop the habit of constantly opening ourselves to the reality of being one human family in only one Father: God.”[i]
Vincent’s teachings relate and leads us into action: “Let us love God . . . let us love God, but let it be with the strength of our arms and with the sweat of our brows.”[ii]
As their coffee break comes to a close, they join their earthly companions in feeling the burden of the divide and injustice that continues to plague the world. Their heads drop in sorrow, and they instinctively begin to pray.
Their prayer is for us, their descendants, who are touched by the spirit of service, unity, and divine love that flowed through their words and actions. Their prayer and their legacy points us to a better tomorrow for all.
They eagerly wait with hope for our response.
Join us this Sunday, September 27th, the feast day of St. Vincent de Paul for a special concert titled “One in Hope,” featuring the International Performing Arts Group, Gen Verde. Gen Verde is part of the Focolare movement- learn more here.
Join us this Sunday at 3pm (EST) for this incredible experience, including the world premiere of the song, “Vincent’s Song (You Did It To Me).” Access the concert here.
[i] Chiara Lubich, Jesus: the Heart of His Message,New City Press, New York, 1985, p 24-25.
Tonight, Hall of Famer and New York Mets legend, Tom Seaver, transitioned to the other side at the age of 75.
While never seeing him pitch live, I certainly appreciate his impact on this team and this town.
But for a more seasoned generation, Tom Terrific was their guy. He didn’t only bring legitimacy and a World Championship to a failing franchise, he was the face for millions who pledge loyalty to the orange and blue.
For example, ask any Mets fan what happened on June 15th, 1977, and if they were alive to see it, their face will drop and they will scratch their head. Some may even shed a tear.
You see, that summer day 43 years ago, Seaver was unexpectedly and inexplicably traded to the Cincinnati Reds. There are those who can still feel the pit in their stomach from the grief that was caused that day.
I think of them tonight and I cannot imagine what they are feeling at the loss of a hero. Their hero.
Seaver has been battling dementia in recent years due to lyme disease. In 2013, he threw out the first pitch at the All-Star Game in Citi Field, but since then his presence has been missed. When the Mets celebrated the 50-year anniversary of the first World Championship last summer, Seaver was unable to attend and his absence left a gaping hole, replaced now by a gaping wound.
As I reflected on this loss, I found myself contemplating why we care about someone who doesn’t even know our name. What is it about ourselves that leads us to mourn the loss of a stranger?
I am sure there are better answers, but I came to this simple conclusion: we all have our people.
For sports fans, you have your favorite player. For others, it might be a musician, an actor, a poet.
We are lifted by their excellence, lost in their craft, and inspired by their gifts.
They leave a mark on our soul.
When they leave us, a part of us and our past goes with them. We face our own mortality and we assess our own impact.
It is a tribute to the human spirit, that strangers can mourn over the passing of a distant figure. At a time of great division, there is a strange comfort found in this unity.
Of course, we must ask ourselves why we fail to mourn when other strangers pass. Why do we not shed a tear for those who die, especially for those who die because of an injustice and violence? Why are we not moved into action?
As we live through a time of social and systemic change, and as we approach close to 190,000 Covid-19 related deaths in the United States (6.13 million globally), perhaps our greatest tribute to Tom Terrific is by being a hero for others.
We will never dazzle on the mound at Shea, but we can use our gifts and talents to lift the spirits of others. We can help heal the division, take simple practices like wearing a mask to protect the vulnerable, and we can be extraordinary.
When our clock runs out, may others mourn our loss and the mark we left on them, both stranger and friend.
Last week, I taught my first college course in this new virtual reality.
In any other year, my first class of a new academic year would have occurred in a large classroom with 30 or so intrigued first-year students.
This time, I stood in my kitchen before a laptop, hoping my 3- month old and 4-year old’s nap time would extend long enough so I could review the syllabus.
Combining my students’ hopes of a traditional college experience mixed with my past memories of prior “first days of school” left me feeling three main emotions.
#1: I felt deeply for these students as they logged in from their bedrooms, residence halls, and dining room tables. Some expressed a desire to be on campus and I genuinely understood, as much as I could, the loss they were experiencing in a virtual higher education settings as opposed to what they initially hoped for before the pandemic.
#2: I felt sad in not physically being with them in a shared space, encountering the ritual of in-class introductions and setting before them what the next 15-weeks would bring. While I could see their faces fitting into a cozy 1-inch by 1-inch box, I missed the energy that this first class brings into our lives as we begin this new chapter together.
#3: I felt challenged to provide an academic experience that met their expectations, that would keep them engaged and fulfilled, all while hoping they stay through the storm to see better days when their time on campus would match their hopes and dreams.
This semester, faculty will attempt to create a virtual space that is innovative, clear, and effective to meet the needs of their students. Administrators and staff will work tirelessly to offer a holistic and supportive environment that responds to their needs as well. Students will do their best to learn and grow in a virtual and hybrid reality as we all learn together.
I am fortunate that my students belong to a faith-based scholarship program that I am blessed to manage. In future years, God-willing, I will see them face-to-face. Until then, we will meet from a distance.
I pray they, as well as all students (especially incoming first-year students), find hope in tomorrow while making the most of today. I hope they can overcome the poor wifi signals, distant learning, and social isolation to see a day when they will gather in class with their peers.
There is much to be grateful for, especially the gift of technology to engage these inspirational students in higher education. In the midst of the challenges, I am fortunate to see the opportunities before all of us to make the most of this experience- as best we can.
Still, on this first day of class, I cannot help but feel for this next generation of college students, for what could be- what should be. I know my fellow colleagues join me across this nation in the exhausting effort to create a space that is inclusive, informative, and transformative- despite the many challenges.
I am once again blessed to accompany over two dozen students on their journey into and through higher education- even if it is with the occasional chatter or my daughters and Elmo in the background.
Well, this is going to be different.
For returning students, your college experience this year will not resemble your past.
For new students, your expectations and hopes for the traditional college experience will have to wait for safer days.
Until then, we are faced with a great challenge. Yet in this challenge, we find opportunity.
There are many emotions that you will feel as you and your faculty transition to remote learning. Your interactions with peers and mentors will be virtual, and while you can still accomplish your goals, we all recognize that it is not the same.
Your generation has done more community service than any generation prior. Perhaps this year, your greatest act of service will be discipline.
Discipline in the form of wearing your mask and keeping your distance- to protect you and your community. Catching this powerful virus might not change your life, but it might change the life of your family, or your classmates’ family, as well as your faculty, administrators, and staff who call your community home.
This discipline brings sacrifice- and much of this will go unseen and unrecognized, and in fact, you might also be challenged and misunderstood. There will be temptations to go to parties, to break safety protocol, and to ignore best health practices. I truly can’t imagine how difficult this will be for you.
In moments of doubt, keep returning to science. Wearing a mask helps, as does social distancing.
In these moments of doubt, you can also return to faith. I am reminded of the temptations Jesus faced in the desert before he started his earthly ministry (Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, and Luke 4:1-13). During this time dedicated to be isolated and alone with God, He wrestled with earthly temptations to satisfy his hunger, His ego, and His need to belong and to be loved. Jesus understood this time of isolation as key to building up His spiritual strength before He served.
We are all called to do the same.
This act of love will help us not only return to a traditional college experience, but it will secure that many more will still be here to accompany you and others on future journeys.
After Jesus faced these temptations, scripture tells us that the angels came and ministered to Him. There are many “angels” in your campus community who are here to accompany you. You do not have to face this year alone. Let us support you by listening and helping you carry your burdens.
There is also an opportunity that lies within the purpose of higher education.
This whole experience is one of self-growth and social change. Your education intends to form and transform you so when you enter into the next chapter of your life, you have not only the degree, but a greater sense of self and knowledge to change the world.
And there is much to change.
The injustices are many, and the pandemic brought them into the light. You can change these realities. We will do this together, and in many ways, we will follow your lead.
As anthropologist Margaret Mead reminds us, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Use this time to build your tool kit, to grow networks, to humbly learn, and to try and fail. Invite God into this experience and listen. God gave you unique gifts and talents to not only bring joy and peace into your life, but God also provided you these strengths to transform lives.
In other words, this is the time to answer prayers.
A closing thought:
One of the most beloved and adored figures in human history is St. Francis of Assisi. He is the subject of innumerable autobiographies and studies. Did you know that is was during a time of self-isolation that his life shifted from ordinary to extraordinary?
He was taken captive during war and fell severely ill, forcing him to remain isolated and distant from loved ones on several occasions. It was during these pauses in his life where he discovered his vocation. From dreams of being a great solider, he uncovered a call to serve those most in need, to understand what frightened him, and to find God in all living things and beings.
Those different days invited him to pray, to listen, to be silent, and to learn.
This same invitation is set before you as your academic year begins.
St. Vincent de Paul wrote, “love is inventive to infinity.”
Allow these different days to re-imagine your life, to reconnect with God, and to love others by creating a more just world. Be inventive and create a new reality for yourself and for others.
Yes, this academic year will be different. Let’s pray that when it ends, we and our communities will also be changed for the better.
Dr. Jimmy Walters is the Director of Catholic Scholars and Residence Ministry, and a Faculty member in the Institute for Core Studies and the Graduate School of Education, at St. John’s University in Queens, New York.