Search This Blog

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Overcome the Darkness with the Light of Hope!

When you think the world's in twilight before dark
consider you may be seeing the coming dawn!
There is much these days to rob the most optimistic Catholic of hope. The dark clouds gather not only over our world and our country, but over the Church as well. When oppressive gloom begins to depress us, we would do well to remember the slogan of the Christophers: “It’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.” And if we have eyes to see, that single candle illuminates signs of hope everywhere, because hope is higher and wider than despair. Let me share a few examples.

Anthony Esolen, the persecuted English professor who got into hot water with the diversity barbarians at purportedly Catholic Providence College, recently described an experience at his new academic home, St. Thomas More College in Merrimack, NH:


A very bright young lady in one of my classes at Saint Thomas More College said something that nearly stunned me. “The guys in our class,” she said… “are really great.” In all my years at an American college, I have not heard anyone say anything comparable about the opposite sex. No one said it at Princeton, where I was an undergraduate. No one said it at Chapel Hill, where I got my doctorate. No one said it at Furman, a snake pit where I taught for two years on a tenure-track, and no one said it at the place where I landed and…taught for twenty-seven years (a place I will not name). I am trying to sort out in my mind why this was so. The first thing that occurs to me is that at those places men and women were in competition with one another, and something about that competition is uncomfortable for both sexes. After all, men are built to compete with other men for the attention of women, and women do the same, for the attention of men. We are not supposed to be enemies: men are for women, and women are for men. That is human nature.

Competition against one another introduces something foreign into their relations, something that seems to suppress the best in the boys, and that brings out in the girls a shade of contempt for their brothers….For in all of those other places, marriage or the courtship that leads to marriage, the natural and paradigmatic relation between man and woman, is far from everyone’s mind. It is perceived as a danger to the wallet, a threat to more important things in life, such as becoming a mid-level bureaucrat at a financial company, or an assistant professor of sociology, or something. And yet deep calls unto deep: man and woman still need and want one another, whether they like it or not.[i]

Esolen’s observation is an important and hopeful one. Despite the sexual debauchery of our times, “deep calls unto deep.” God made us male and female and “whether [we] like it or not” we “still need and want one another.” Good marriages and good families still happen! That is not to ignore the problems in the culture: the sexual debauchery in the entertainment industry, the divorce epidemic, rampant pornography, drunken campus hook-up parties, family breakdown with cohabitation and serial marriage, etc. And yet…“deep calls unto deep.” And the deepest call is from our Creator.

Jesus often used examples from nature to teach important lessons, so I’ll share one. In 1997, two ecologists in Costa Rica arranged for a juice company to dump orange peels and pulp in a nature preserve (Área de Conservación Guanacaste) where the land was deforested and over-grazed. Then they went away for a decade. When they returned to study the results, they had trouble even finding the large sign marking the area. After they did, they discovered that, “Compared to the adjacent plot dominated by a single species of tree, the site of the orange peel deposit had thriving two dozen species of vegetation!”[ii] In other words the orange “waste” produced new and abundant life, so abundant, in fact, that it flourished much more than growth on the plot next door -- the 100 fold yield.

And that is what God does with us. No matter how bad circumstances appear, no matter how barren our soil, God calls and often showers us with graces as abundant as those tons of orange peels. And souls blossom. “Deep calls unto deep.” Conversion and growth happen. In the case of St. Paul it was instant. For many the process is longer. Some begin in fertile soil, others are nurtured in soil as poor as that at the Costa Rica dump site. But God’s grace and his call reaches all who are searching for truth.

One such soul was Alphonse Ratisbonne. Alphonse was born in 1814 and raised in a large Jewish family in the Alsace region of France. His family was known for its wealth and its charity. His father Auguste practiced his faith sporadically and Alphonse lost his virtuous mother, the real moral example in the home, when he was only four. A life changing event occurred while Alphonse was in high school. His older brother Theodore converted to the Catholic faith and later became a priest. Perhaps that contributed to Alphonse’s descent into atheism. He later wrote that his brother’s actions, “dealt a terrible blow to my family….in spite of the most urgent entreaties, [he] became a priest and conducted his ministry in the very same city, in sight of my family. This behavior revolted me, and I began to hate his cassock and his character. Raised among Christians as indifferent as I was, my brother’s conversion convinced me that Catholics were fanatic, and I detested them….There are few families whose members love each other more than mine….One member alone wasteful to me – my brother Theodore. His serious words aroused my anger. I bore a bitter hatred for priests, churches, monasteries, and above all, the Jesuits.”[iii]

Despite his antipathy for faith, Alphonse, according to a witness, had a pure heart and devoted himself to “serving the cause of his oppressed people, and working to get them full equality under the law, as well as greater inclusion in society.”[iv] His disbelief took its first blow when he became engaged to a young woman who inspired him to recognize the immortality of the soul and he began to thank God for his worldly happiness.

The story of Alphonse’s conversion shows the miracle of God’s grace and how He works in the souls of truth seekers even when they resist him with all their might. Because his fiancé was only sixteen, Alphonse’s marriage was delayed and he embarked on a trip to the Orient with a number of stops. In Rome he met Theodore de Bussiere, brother of a friend, a Catholic who had written about the Orient. On paying him a visit to learn about his experiences, Alphonse shared his impressions of Rome and spoke of his anger over the Jewish ghetto which “rekindled his hatred of Catholicism.” Baron Bussiere later wrote “I tried to reason with him, and he answered that he was born a Jew and would die a Jew….It was then that the most extraordinary idea came to me; an idea from Heaven, for the wise men of the world would have called it folly.”[v] He essentially dared Alphonse to wear the miraculous medal which had only been struck in 1831. “According to your way of thinking,” he said, “it should make no difference to you, and it would give me great pleasure.” Alphonse agreed, but refused to recite the Memorare. So Theodore had another idea. “I handed him the prayer, begging him to take it with him, but to be good enough to copy it, because I had only that one copy. Then with a gesture of humor and irony, he said, ‘So be it, I’ll copy it. You can have my copy and I’ll keep yours.’”[vi]



The fish was hooked, but fighting hard. Returning the next day, Alphonse cried out to his host, “Sorcerer! Magician!...You have known me only twenty-four hours, and you are forcing me to listen to things that my brother would not dare say to me!” He intended to leave Rome at once, but, incredibly, gave into Theodore’s entreaties to stay to attend a ceremony at St. Peter’s. They continued to visit the sights together with Theodore gently challenging his new friend’s prejudice; but there was no indication of the miracle about to happen.

On the afternoon of January 20th, leaving a café where he had just met two fellow countrymen whom he invited to his wedding, Alphonse happened upon his Friend Theodore and accepted an invitation to join him in his carriage. They stopped for a few minutes at a church where preparations were in progress for the funeral of Theodore’s friend, Count de Lafferronnays who had died unexpectedly. Rather than wait in the carriage, Alphonse decided to visit the Church. “I only remember a black dog that jumped around my feet,” he wrote later. “Soon I no longer saw anything….Or rather, my God, I saw only one thing!!!.... human words cannot attempt to express the inexpressible….I was there, prostrate, bathed in my tears, my heart outside of myself.”[vii] The Hound of Heaven, the Supreme Fisher of Men, had caught His prey.

When Theodore found him, he was kneeling in the archangel chapel praying. He had experienced a miraculous vision of the Blessed Mother.[viii] Raising his eyes he said, “Oh! How this man [Theodore’s deceased friend] prayed for me.” In fact, the baron had shared his concerns with de Lafferronnays a few days before he died and the count told him, “If he says the Memorare, you will have him, and many others with him.”

Only a month later, having been infused with the truths of the Catholic faith and understanding them well, Alphonse was baptized. “Filled with a feeling of gratitude towards the Blessed Virgin Mary, I thought of my brother with inexpressible joy. I felt heartfelt compassion for my family, lost in the darkness of Judaism, and for heretics and sinners.”[ix] Facing the hostility of his family who accused him of renouncing the faith of his fathers he replied, “I am not renouncing the faith of Abraham, of Moses; I am not renouncing the prophesies of Isaiah, Malachi, nor am I renouncing David or Solomon…but I renounce Judas.”[x] His statement reflected the belief that, “In becoming Catholic, the Jew does not change his religion. He is the religious man par excellence who has achieved completeness….fulfillment and perfection…Jesus Christ, the center and purpose of the law.” [xi]

Alphonse entered the Jesuit order and was ordained, but later left the Jesuits to found, with his brother Theodore, the Congregation of Priests of Our Lady of Sion to work for the conversion of the Jewish people. The last words of Alphonse before his death were, “God is my witness that I offer my life for the salvation of Israel.”[xii]

But that was over 150 years ago, you might say. What about today? By the grace of God, the most unexpected people are still coming to the faith despite what we can only call a chaotic time in Church history. In her book Chosen, Donna Steichen invited 23 “surprised converts” to tell their stories of conversion and subsequent participation in the new evangelization. As George Neumayr says in the introduction, it’s a remarkable fact that “even as the Church’s roof collapsed crushed by winds of change and ‘progress’” after Vatican II, nevertheless “converts sought shelter underneath it.” [xiii] Among these improbable Catholic converts are individuals from a wide range of backgrounds: some religious, some indifferent, some hostile to both God and religion. All of them illustrate that “Christ, not man, converts;” and that, despite the failure of the shepherds to effectively teach the faith, “yet spiritual orphans of the age still crawled to the Church’s door….Fortunately, orthodox searchers can still hear Christ’s voice through all the ecumenical din and false teaching, and [Steichen’s] book is rich in that compelling drama. From witches to the witch doctors of modern medicine, from ferocious skeptics and sinners to ordinary ones, Christ’s call to conversion was heard – a call that sounds louder and louder in our age of exhausted hedonism.”[xiv]

Among the most surprising conversions are those from two very different background groups: converts from Islam which often threatens a death sentence and, perhaps less physically dangerous but also surprising, converts crossing the divide from the Great Schism of Eastern Orthodoxy to return to Rome.

Rima Fakih converted from Islam
to Catholicism, one of many Muslims
embracing Jesus Christ!
In the past two decades, millions of Muslims have abandoned the owner-god Allah of Mohammad to be embraced by the Father-God of Jesus Christ. According to Dudley Woodbury, a Fulbright scholar of Islam, since 2000, approximately 20,000 Muslims in the U.S. convert to Christianity every year, many to the Catholic Church.[xv] Among them are high profile converts like Rima Fakih, the first Muslim to be crowned Miss USA (2010), who became Catholic in 2016.[xvi] Professor James Likoudis, himself a convert from Greek Orthodoxy, recently published Heralds of a Catholic Russia: Twelve Spriitual Pilgrims from Byzantium to Rome. These conversion stories encompass a number of intellectuals from the 19th and 20th centuries who, after converting, dedicated their lives to smoothing the ways for other Orthodox believers to come home to Rome.

Conversions are, indeed, a powerful sign of hope and God’s grace, but also a sign of the interdependence of faith.  Inspired by God, conversion often also requires the cooperation of apostles, those sent by God to touch hearts and lead souls to Him. We are Christ’s hands and voice in the world. Alphonse Ratisbonne received miraculous grace. But his associate Theodore and his dying friend were channels for grace as well. Donna Steichen’s “chosen” converts all share stories of those who influenced their journeys. Kevin Lents was drawn to deeper faith by his little daughter’s request that he go to Church. Stephanie Block fought against the compelling witness of her professor at Hunter College, Alice von Hildebrand, but was finally won over by it. Joseph Pearce and Austin Ruse were moved by the writing of G.K. Chesterton. All of these converts experienced God’s call through others, which graphically demonstrates our call to evangelization. We must not remain idle in the marketplace when there is work in the vineyard. As St. John Paul II wrote in Chritifidelis Laici:

….keep a watchful eye on this our world, with its problems and values, its unrest and hopes, its defeats and triumphs:….This then is the vineyard; this is the field in which the faithful are called to fulfill their mission. Jesus wants them, as he wants all his disciples, to be the "salt of the earth" and the "light of the world"….The lay faithful have an essential and irreplaceable role in this announcement [of the Good News] and in this testimony: through them the Church of Christ is made present in the various sectors of the world, as a sign and source of hope and of love.[xvii]

Other signs of hope also abound. Look at the recent natural disasters: hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, and wildfires. How many acts of generosity and kindness grew out of them? And how often to families receive “signs” of hope? People came back to their devastated homes and found statues of Jesus and Mary the only items to survive. The Rojas family of Corpus Christi returned after Hurricane Harvey to find their home a mass of rubble from an electrical fire which engulfed several houses due to the high winds. “We would have died if we had stayed,” Natali Rojas told reporters. The family’s Our Lady of Guadalupe statue was the only item saved.[xviii] And their experience was not an isolated incident. Other religious statues survived the earthquakes in Mexico and the wildfires in California. In Napa Valley, Dr. Kenny Omlin said that not only did a statue of Mary survive the blaze, but so did all the homes on his eleven acre property belonging to members of his family. As they fled, his elderly mother prayed the rosary.[xix] Expecting the entire property to be destroyed he was shocked to return and find it untouched. “The only thing near us that was still standing [besides their homes] was a vineyard down the hill beneath us,” Omlin said. “Everything else was torched” including trees adjacent to the home.“It was so surreal,” Omlin said. “Remembering my mom and the rosary, and then to see the Madonna sitting there.”[xx]

Catholic.org published an article recently describing the many religious statues surviving disasters and their significance:

So the miracles are there to remind us in our darkest moments that God still reigns. Our Lady still intercedes for us. The promises of Christ remain. The Bible is filled with stories of disaster. Disasters befell the Israelites. Even Jesus and his apostles suffered. The martyrs suffered. We suffer. But with God, we also triumph. So the atheists can sneer, and the cynics can roll their eyes, but those of us who are paying attention understand the message in these miracles. God is with us, now and forever, and will never abandon us. Even in our darkest moments, Our Lady hears our cries, and intercedes for us.[xxi]

    St. Peter gave us our mission when he wrote, “Should anyone ask you the reason for this hope of yours, be ever ready to reply, but speak gently and respectfully.” [1 Peter 3:15] We are called then always to be people of hope and to share that hope with others -- to light candles and place them on the lampstand -- to invite a disbelieving and despairing world to conversion.

   Every morning let each of us ask himself, “How can I light candles today to give hope to the world?” We may be called to give little more than a smile and a few words of encouragement backed up by prayer and sacrifice. Or, like Alphonse Ratisbonne, perhaps the call will mean giving up marriage to enter the priesthood or religious life. Whatever our call, let us embrace it in joy and give an unqualified and enthusiastic, “Yes!” to God, the only true way to overcome darkness.




[i] Anthony Esolen, The Pleasures of Virtue, The Catholic Thing, October 5, 2017, https://www.thecatholicthing.org/2017/10/05/the-pleasures-of-virtue/

[ii] A Juice Company Dumped Orange Peels in a National Park; 16 Years Later They Can’t Believe Their Eyes…

https://simplecapacity.com/2017/08/a-juice-company-dumped-orange-peels-in-a-national-park/

[iii] Newsletter of Saint Joseph de Clairval Abbey, 21150 Flavigny-Sur-Ozerain-France, August 24 2013 on the life of Fr. Alphonse Ratisbonne.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Armando Santos, The Conversion of Alphonse Ratisbonne, http://www.tfp.org/the-conversion-of-alphonse-ratisbonne/, November 2, 2015.

[ix] Newsletter of St. Joseph de Clarival Abbey.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Donna Steichen (editor), Chosen: How Charist Sent Twenty-three Surprised Converts to Replant His Vineyard, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2009, p. 7.

[xiv] Ibid, p.7 & p. 10.

[xv] Sherry Weddell, Why are Millions of Muslims Becoming Christian?, National Catholic Register, May 19, 2016, http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/why-are-millions-of-muslims-becoming-christian

[xvi] First Muslim Miss USA Winner Converts to Catholicism, ChurchPop, May 9, 2016, https://churchpop.com/2016/05/09/first-muslim-miss-usa-winner-becomes-catholic/

[xvii] St. John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Christifidelis Laici, Introduction. December 30, 1988, http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_30121988_christifideles-laici.html

[xviii] Lisa Bourne, Statue of Mary Miraculously Survives Hurricane Harvey, LifeSiteNews, August 29, 2017, https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/the-only-thing-standing-were-holy-things-after-hurricane-destroys-homes

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] Marshall Connolly, http://www.catholic.org/news/hf/faith/story.php?id=76109

1 comment:

Catechist Kev said...

Aw, this is great Mary Ann. =)

Kind of you to mention us about our story in Mrs. Steichen's book.

It is also timely because - as one dear friend keeps reminding me - there are "green shoots" sprouting all over The Lord's Kingdom!

I need that repeated to me every now and again.

God love you,
Catechist Kev