An excerpt from Blessed John XXIII's diary cites St Francis de Sales. He says, "One of the similes used by St Francis de Sales which I love to repeat is,'I am like a bird singing in a thicket of thorns'; this must be an inspiration to me. So I must say very little to anyone about the things that hurt me. Great discretion and forbearance in my judgments of people and situations: willingness to pray particularly for those who may cause me suffering, and in everything great kindness and endless patience, remembering that any other sentiment or mixture of sentiments, Macedoine, as they say here, is contrary to the spirit of the Gospel and of evangelical perfection." Great words! If you and I are to be "fishers of men, and not keepers of the aquarium" we will need to go to people and places where our hands may get dirty. It may mean that arrows being flung at you have nothing to do with you or I, but rather hurts people have buried. Life is messy and sometimes we need to enter into the mess to bring healing and hope. Keep singing, as Francis De Sales says, even if you are in a thicket of thorns.
Consider the amazing story from the life of Fulton Sheen. The story is retold here from Patrick Madrid's book Search & Rescue. Madrid is emphasizing the need to listen with our heart. He relates: "There's a remarkable story about the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen that illustrates what a master he was at listening with his heart. Before giving a talk at a parish one evening, he was dining in the rectory with the pastor and a young associate priest. The young priest strongly criticized the Catholic Church for her wealth, prodding Archbishop Sheen with pointed questions about why the Vatican didn't sell its holdings and valuables and give the money to the poor. Sheen gave the standard explanation but that didn't satisfy this priest. He continued badgering the Archbishop, scoffing at the Church's opulence. After a few frustrating attempts to answer the argumentative priest's challenges, Sheen took the priest aside out of earshot of others. The Archbishop fixed the younger man with a steely gaze, 'Father how long have you been stealing from the collection basket?' The look on the young priest's face said it all, and his story tumbled out. He had been skimming money from the parish collection basket for some time, and his wrath against the Church's 'wealth' was the pressure-release valve for his soul, a way he could relieve some of the accumulating pain and anxiety of his guilty conscience. Rather than stop his sinful activity, repent, and go to Confession, he chose the path of haranguing the Church for being 'too wealthy.' Imagine the power of God's grace working in that priest's soul at that moment, all because Archbishop Sheen listened with his heart, and not just with his ears. How was Sheen able to discern this deep issue lurking below the surface of the arguments? Only God's grace can account for it."
In my own pastoral life I have found this to true as well. Madrid cautions us to think that there is some deep hurt lurking beneath every disagreement. Some people have simple disagreements with church teachings but I have heard more horror stories of couples approaching a parish for baptism-longing to find healing and hope for a child, only to be turned away. Sometimes they never come back. Steve Ray, in his parish mission in December, noted that Calvary Chapel proudly announces that most of their congregation nation-wide is ex-Catholics. What are we to do? We are to be the bird that sings in the thicket of thorns.
As a seminarian I heard an amazing testimony from a young woman at Human Life International. It was a conference just before the National right to life march. Shared how she became pregnant in college and chose to have an abortion. She became more hardened and more bitter and endured a series of hearbreaking relationships. She had two more abortions. She became more vocal and more boisterous in her disdain for church teaching. She marched, she wrote letters, all in the name of "women's rights" One day, grace intervened in a powerful way. She went to the local public library and "accidently" found herself in the Birth section of the library. She picked out a book on the development of an unborn child in the womb. She opened the page to the page that had the exact stage of development of the last child she had aborted. It was like lightning struck. She was a puddle of tears. The story has had a very happy ending, however. She became reconciled with the church and now works for Project Rachel and is on her way "to becoming a saint." I shared this story in a homily at my previous parish. After mass I was stopped by a young woman who said "Father, I am that woman." I looked at her puzzled. She said "Father, I have had three abortions. I do not know why I came here this evening but I guess I was supposed to hear you." She then encouraged me to speak out because there are many hurting women who need to know that healing and hope is possible.
In the movie Seabisquit, my favorite movie, Jeff Bridges asks Red Pollard, "Son, why are you so angry?" Red had been abandoned by his parents during the depression and was a man drifting when the opportunity to become jockey for Seabisquit arose. Red and Seabiscuit both found healing in their mutual relationship. Silent No More, Project Rachel, and many other organizations are out there for the express purpose of bring hope and healing to women who have been hurt by abortion. There are many wounded healers out there just waiting to extend a hand of compassion. You and I are to be the bird who sings in the thicket of thorns.
When I hear headlines screaming "women's rights!" I ask myself the question. What hurt lurks beneath?
Lord Jesus, bring healing and hope to people who have been hurt by the church and healing and hope to women who are ensnared in the "culture of death."
St. Polycarp pray for us!