By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Aug 31, 2009)
The following is part 3 of a 14-part series to help inspire parish cenacle and study groups this coming Lent who are looking for ways to make a difference in this troubled world. We invite you to view the entire series.
Here is a familiar story from the life of Jesus with a special, hidden message:
Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias. And a multitude followed Him, because they saw the signs which He did on those who were diseased. Jesus went up on the mountain, and there sat down with His disciples. Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand. Lifting up His eyes, then, and seeing that a multitude was coming to Him, Jesus said to Philip, "How are we to buy bread so that these people may eat?" This He said to test him, for He Himself knew what he would do. Philip answered Him, "Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little." One of His disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, said to Him, "There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what are they among so many?" Jesus said, "Make the people sit down." Now there was much grass in the place; so the men sat down, in number about five thousand. Jesus then took the loaves and when He had given thanks, He distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. And when they had eaten their fill, He told His disciples, "Gather up the fragments left over, that nothing may be lost." So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with the fragments from the five barley loaves left by those who had eaten (Jn 6:1-13).
In part 2 of this 14-part series I wrote how we cannot make much of a positive difference in the world on our own — but with Jesus Christ we can. The underlying message in the story of the loaves and fish is not only that the Lord Jesus can feed hungry people miraculously, but also that He can do so by using just the little that people have on hand and that they are willing entrust to Him for His use. Saint Andrew said to Jesus, "There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they among so many?" (Jn 6:9). Yet that meager supply, when offered in faith to Jesus, was enough to feed multitudes. So, too, will our seemingly insignificant efforts to serve Him and make a difference in this world — if completely offered up to Him and guided by His Holy Spirit — work miracles. That is "the five loaves and two fish" principle!
Let's take three examples from history of people of no great social standing, people who simply offered to Jesus Christ in faith their limited strength and pure intentions, and let's see how our Savior used them to change the world. This is how He works His miracles that really make a difference: by taking human lives freely surrendered to His service and using them for His great and benevolent purposes.
Bartolome de Las Casas of Spain was only eight years old when, in 1493, he saw Christopher Columbus parading down the main street of his home city, Seville, with the treasures and natives that Columbus had brought back from the New World. Bartolome was thrilled, and so was his father Pedro, who immediately signed up to accompany Columbus on his next voyage. Five years later, Pedro returned home a wealthy man, bringing with him a special gift for his son: a native slave boy. The two boys became fast friends, and Bartolome learned a valuable lesson: that slaves are just as human as their masters.
Some years later, Bartolome himself traveled to the island of Hispaniola, where he became the first priest to celebrate his ordination in the New World. Bartolome found the natives on the island to be a friendly and gentle people, eager to learn the Christian faith. However, he discovered that the Spanish colonists were anything but gentle. They treated the natives cruelly — "worse than animals," Bartolome later wrote — and often enslaved them. Most of the Spanish colonists had come to the New World simply to make a fortune, as his father had done, and the quickest way to do that was to enslave the native peoples and make them do all the hard labor. "It was upon these gentle lambs," Bartolome wrote, that the Spanish colonists "fell like ravening wolves upon the fold."
A group of his fellow Dominican priests in New Spain began to protest these injustices, even threatening with damnation anyone who dared to hold natives as slaves. Bartolome joined their cause and devoted the rest of his life to publicizing through his writings the cruelty inflicted upon the indigenous peoples of the New World. By divine Providence, his words ultimately reached the ears of Pope Paul III in Rome, who responded by writing the papal bull "Sublimus Deus" in 1537, declaring that all the peoples discovered in the New World were equally and fully human, that they should therefore be treated with human dignity, and that those who enslaved and mistreated them were guilty of grievous sin. As a result of this papal document and several more by subsequent popes, slavery was gradually abolished throughout the entire Spanish Empire. In fact, "Sublimus Deus" is judged by many historians to be the first real treatise on human rights in the modern world. And it all started with one devout Dominican friar, Bartolome Las Casas, who refused to "look the other way" when he saw the miseries and injustices suffered by the natives of Hispaniola.
Frances Xavier Cabrini was born in Italy in 1850, the thirteenth child of a farming family. From her youngest days she dreamed of being a missionary. She used to make paper boats, fill them with violets, and set them down a canal, pretending that they were filled with missionaries journeying to the far corners of the globe. She wanted to become a nun, but several convents refused her entry, ostensibly because of her fragile health. Frances, therefore, resigned herself to becoming a teacher and gave up her missionary daydreams, entrusting the course of her life to the hands of Jesus Christ.
It turned out that Frances had repeatedly been refused entrance to convents because of a scheming priest named Monsignor Serrati who really wanted to put Frances to work on his own projects. He convinced Frances to go to an orphanage run by a new religious institute that was under his oversight, to help reform its management practices; he promised her that she did not need to stay there more than a few weeks. In the end, he refused to permit her to leave, and she spent six years in charge of the orphanage. Frances did such a splendid job in running this institution in the face of great obstacles that other sisters came to join her in the religious community there, and she successfully applied to Rome to turn the institute in to a full religious congregation with a worldwide mission. She took as the congregation's motto the words of St. Paul: "I can do all things through Him who strengthens me."
Frances would often need the Lord to do "all things" on her behalf, for numerous times the orphanages and schools run by her congregation ran short of money. Whenever this occurred, she would simply tell the sisters to pray and have faith, and the money would be found to carry on: sometimes, miraculously, even in a particular drawer or a cupboard where Frances had told the sisters to look.
Meanwhile, Bishop Scalabrini of Piacenza made known to Mother Frances the terrible plight of the Italian immigrants in America. Shamelessly exploited as laborers, they suffered also due to their limited knowledge of English, and many of them lived in dire poverty. Sisters were badly needed in America to educate the children of these immigrants--especially in English and in the Catholic faith--to care for their orphans, and to provide them with affordable hospitals. Mother Frances was sympathetic, but she had already set her heart on sending her sisters to work in China. However, when she went to the Pope and knelt for his blessing on her work in the Far East, he replied, "No, not the East, but the West." Thus commissioned by the Holy Father himself, she made her way to America with seven sisters in 1889. Starting out with almost no money at all, they began to establish orphanages, schools, and hospitals in New York and Chicago, later branching out to New Orleans and even farther south: to Nicaragua and Grenada. She started her first hospital, Columbus Hospital, in New York with just four gifts of $50 each! She even did missionary work among the Italian miners in Colorado, going down mine shafts and tunnels to teach them English and the Catholic faith. Ultimately, Mother Frances became a U.S. citizen herself.
Finally, full of joy yet worn out by her labors, Mother Frances made a visit to Rome in 1910 and asked the prefect of her congregation, Cardinal Vives y Tuto, to relieve her of her responsibilities as head of her religious order so she could spend her final years in contemplation. But the Cardinal had secretly conspired with the sisters of the order unanimously to re-elect her to another term in office. When he received her request for retirement in person, therefore, the Cardinal replied, "Mother Cabrini, as up to now you have governed your institute so badly, I have decided to give you another chance, in the hope that you will do a better job in the future. You are to remain the Superior-General."
Seven years later she still held the post. Her last day on earth was spent wrapping Christmas presents for her friends and filling bags of candy for the schoolchildren. Her Christmas card that year read, "Send forth Thy light and Thy truth; they shall lead me into Thy holy Mountain and into Thy tabernacles." When her sisters objected that this was a strange sentiment for a Christmas card, she replied, "Leave it as it is."
Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini died quietly in her room on Dec. 22, 1917, and was canonized in 1946. She was the first citizen of the United States to be named a saint.
Our third example can be dealt with very briefly because we know so little about the details of his life. He was a common laborer and called a "just man" in the Bible. He did little else, according to the Scriptures, than protect and provide for his family. He disappears from the scene some time after his foster son's twelfth birthday. We have no record at all of any words he spoke, nor did he ever write anything as far as we know.
His name is St. Joseph. He is the patron saint of the Universal Church and the foster father of the Savior of the world.
The point of these three stories is certainly not that in order to make a difference in the world you have to be an activist priest, a missionary sister, or a layman raised up to be the guardian of the Redeemer Himself! But notice how the Lord used each of these three people in ways far beyond what any of them could have expected. Bartolome Las Casas was providentially put into contact with what was happening on the other side of the world, originally by his father's desire for wealth, and the Lord used Bartolome's subsequent firsthand knowledge of the situation of the indigenous peoples in the New World — and his writing skills — to overturn terrible injustices being perpetrated in the Spanish Empire. Mother Cabrini entrusted her daydreams of missionary adventures to our Lord when it appeared that they could never be fulfilled, and Christ used the scheming of Monsignor Serrati, the words of the Pope (who, no doubt, had been prepped by the Bishop of Piacenza), and the further (well-intentioned) conspiracy of Cardinal Tuto and the sisters to make her life bear fruit beyond her imagining. As for St. Joseph, he died before ever seeing the full fruition of his labors, but he had the assurance of the angel who had come to him in a dream and told him that his Son would be named "Jesus" (which means "God saves") because He would save His people from their sins.
The point is that when you entrust your heart to Jesus Christ to be His true disciple, He can do more with that little offering than you can ask or imagine!
1. What can a follower of Jesus Christ do when confronted by a huge and seemingly insurmountable social injustice? What are your options?
2. Mother Cabrini cared for the immigrants in the emerging American nation, taking steps to meet their critical spiritual, social, and physical needs. Who are the immigrants, strangers, and newcomers in your midst today, and what are their urgent needs?
3. St. Joseph was called to be the foster father of Jesus, a role he freely and voluntarily accepted. When have you ever acted as like a nurturing parent for someone for whose well-being you were not, strictly speaking, responsible? Has someone ever done that for you?
Based on a prayer of St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226)
Make me a channel of Your peace.
Where there is hatred let me bring Your love.
Where there is injury Your pardon, Lord.
And where there's doubt true faith in You.
Make me a channel of Your peace.
Where there's despair in life, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness only light,
And where there's sadness ever joy.
Oh, Master grant that I may never seek
So much to be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love with all my soul.
Make me a channel of your peace.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.
In giving to all men that we receive,
And in dying that we're born to eternal life.
A Hymn (Bishop W. Walsham How, 1864)
For all the saints who from their labours rest,
Who thee by faith, before the world confessed,
Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blessed. Alleluia!
Thou wast their rock, their fortress and their might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well-fought fight,
Thou in the darkness drear their one true light. Alleluia!
O blest communion! Fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine. Alleluia!
Read Part 4: Start With Yourself (A Spring Cleaning for the Soul)
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. He wishes to extend special thanks to Kathleen Ervin and the Divine Mercy Eucharistic Society of Oakland, Calif., for help in producing this series. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press).