In the life of prayer, certain words seem to press in on us at times. They run like a thread through the pattern of our days and come to mind when least expected. I’ve been sitting with the Lord a lot these past months, asking Him to help me wrap my head around the scandals that have rocked the Church, asking Him to help me understand why He has allowed so many of His beloved sons and daughters to be so grievously wounded. And in the face of all the suffering and confusion, I’ve reflected on how the Lord is calling me to live my vocation as a Catholic and a member of the Body of Christ. In a moment of idle speculation – when I contemplated what it would be like to turn my back on the whole sordid mess – He asked, “Will you also go away?” Like Peter, I found myself replying, “Lord, to whom shall I go?” (cf. Jn 6:67-68) There’s been a lot of silence as we have sat together, quietly resting in the darkness. And in the end, His answer to me has been a word of invitation: ‘faithful’.
Faithfulness, one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:22-23), is a gift that helps us to be steadfast in our relationship with God, unswerving in our love for His Church, and constant in the duties of our state in life. To be faithful is to be true to yourself and to what you believe, to do what you promise, to be loyal, unwavering, and resolute in living out your vocation. God does not ask us to be faithful only when it’s convenient or provided we’re not feeling overwhelmed by doubt. To be faithful means we never give up, no matter what life throws our way. Throughout Scripture, God is described as the Faithful One (e.g. Deut 7:9, 1 Cor 10:13, and 2 Thess 3:3). It is one of His most beautiful attributes, for He remains true to us even if we turn away from Him (cf. 2 Tim 2:13).
Mary, Virgo Fidelis
“Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” – Luke 1:38
It’s not possible for me to think about faithfulness without pausing to reflect on the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary. No human being lived this virtue more perfectly than Our Lady, the one who was filled with grace from the moment of her Immaculate Conception. Mary is the pre-eminent example of all the virtues; she is the virgo fidelis – the virgin most faithful – unswerving in her faithfulness to God and in living out her vocation as the Mother of Jesus. She was faithful to her Son from the moment of the Annunciation to the moment she stood in the shadow of His Cross. Even during her greatest trial, as she gazed on the broken body of her crucified Son, she gave her unequivocal “yes” to be the Mother of the Church. Mary not only knew who God had created her to be, but she contemplated His words in her heart and trusted in His plan for her life.
Hers was not a reluctant assent to His plan; Mary didn’t ‘grudgingly agree’ to cooperate with God in what He had revealed to her about Himself and His will for her life. No. Hers was a joyful surrender, a complete abandonment of her entire self – body and soul – to the One in whom she believed, the One in whom she had placed her trust.
Faithful to God
“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” – Hebrews 11:1
Like our Blessed Mother, we too are called to live the virtue of faithfulness to God in our own lives. We can choose to say “yes” to the Lord’s promptings when the sun is shining as well as when the way is dark; we can follow Him when we have the approval of others as well as when everyone thinks we’re crazy. God invites us to see Him in all things and to bring His love to everyone we encounter. What does this mean for our everyday lives? Consider these words, taken from the wall of St. Teresa of Calcutta’s home for children in India:
“People are unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered,
LOVE THEM ANYWAY
If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives,
DO GOOD ANYWAY
If you are successful, you win false friends and true enemies,
The good you do will be forgotten tomorrow,
DO GOOD ANYWAY
Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable,
BE HONEST AND FRANK ANYWAY
What you spent years building may be destroyed overnight,
People really need help but may attack you if you help them,
HELP PEOPLE ANYWAY
Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth,
GIVE THE WORLD THE BEST YOU’VE GOT ANYWAY.”1
Faithfulness, in the final analysis, is between us and God. It’s about the relationship of love that exists between God and ourselves, not about how others might respond to our actions. Christians are not faithful to an abstract idea but to a Person, to God revealed in the Person of Jesus Christ. Faithfulness is about following Him anyway – being Christ to others – not because we have to, but because we can’t imagine living our lives separated from the One we love. We rely on Him for everything, convinced that He knows better than we do what will bring about our greatest happiness. We may not always understand why God has us where we are in life, but we trust that He has a purpose.
Blessed John Henry Newman once wrote, “God has created me to do him some definite service; he has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another. I have my mission – I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. He has not created me for nothing. I shall do good, I shall do his work, I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of the truth in my own place – if I do but keep his commandments and serve him in my calling. Therefore, I will trust him. Whatever, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness my sickness may serve him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what he is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me – still he knows what he is about – and I trust him.”2
Faithful to our Vocation
“God has not called me to be successful. He has called me to be faithful.” – St. Teresa of Calcutta
We can’t be faithful to the path God has chosen for us if we don’t know what it is and what that entails. To discern that, we need to grow in self-knowledge. Like Mary, we must know who we are in the eyes of God and be willing to embrace who He has created us to be. In speaking to seminarians at the North American College in Rome, Cardinal Timothy Dolan once said, “Fidelity means … that we are true to the nature and the demands of our call, that we live a life of integrity flowing from an inner conviction of who we are in the eyes of God, that we reliably fulfill the duties associated with our vocation, that we are men of our word, who can be counted on to do what we say and live as we profess.”3
For Mary, this meant saying “yes” to a pregnancy that left her at risk of being stoned to death at the hands of the Jews. It meant giving birth alone in a stable and then fleeing to a strange country far from family and friends in the middle of the night. It meant searching for three days for the Son she had lost, and hidden years spent cleaning, cooking, and teaching her Son who was God. It meant not only saying “yes” to life – to the conception of Jesus in her womb – but “yes” to His death on the Cross. It meant holding His lifeless Body in her arms, yet responding with faith as she prayed with the disciples in the Upper Room, awaiting the descent of the Holy Spirit. Mary didn’t understand everything that happened in her life, and she didn’t understand every aspect of her Son’s mission. She didn’t have the gift of hindsight to know that everything would turn out okay. Like us, she had to take what God asked of her on faith. Hers was a hidden life that seemed of little importance in the eyes of the world, yet it was a life that was the definition of what it means to be faithful.
Faithfulness, for us, means knowing and accepting God’s unique plan for our lives. Created in the image of God, we are called to reflect His Presence in the world. We have a responsibility to educate ourselves, to work hard, and to do the best job we can at whatever task we are called to perform – whether at school, at work, or at home. It means doing ordinary things with extraordinary love and nurturing and protecting those entrusted to our care. It means leading lives worthy of our Lord – keeping His commandments and being upright men and women of the Gospel who care for and serve one another, especially those in need. It means trusting that God’s way is best, even when we worry about how we will make ends meet or when we struggle to accept illness or the loss of a loved one.
Faithful to the Church
“The Church is our family and like any family we need to be able to live together. … [Christ] is head of our family and He makes all the decisions. For Christ, the Church is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. To God, everything is simple – God’s love for us is greater than all the conflicts, which will pass.”4– St. Teresa of Calcutta
But our call to faithfulness goes beyond our duty to God and our vocations; we are also called to be faithful to Jesus’ beloved Spouse, the Church. The Catechism teaches that, “It is in the Church, in communion with all the baptized, that the Christian fulfills his vocation. From the Church he receives the Word of God containing the teachings of ‘the law of Christ’. From the Church he receives the grace of the sacraments that sustains him on the ‘way’. From the Church he learns the example of holiness and recognizes its model and source in the all-holy Virgin Mary; he discerns it in the authentic witness of those who live it; he discovers it in the spiritual tradition and long history of the saints who have gone before him and whom the liturgy celebrates in the rhythms of the sanctoral cycle [the feast days of the saints].”5
There is no doubt that these are difficult days for the Church, and many are struggling to make sense of what it means to be faithful to the Church in light of its failings. In reading Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s book, Priests for the Third Millennium, I came across a reflection on fidelity that really struck a chord in me. He writes, “We [priests] love the Church and are as faithful to her as an excited, exuberant, buoyant young groom on his honeymoon. True, the longer we are married to our wife, the Church, the more we become aware of her flaws, her warts, her wrinkles – but we love her all the more. As [Cardinal] Henri de Lubac wrote: For what could I know of Him without her? She may appear weak, her growth compromised, her means of action ridiculous, her witness too often hidden. Her children may not understand her, but at such a time I shall look at the humiliated face of my spouse and I shall love her all the more, for when some are hypnotized by those features which make her face look old, love will make me discover her hidden forces, the silent activity that gives her perpetual youth.”6
There is no question that the Church is filled with sinners – and that includes popes and priests, you and me – but we must not allow ourselves to be so scandalized by our sins or the sins of others that we give up on the battle for holiness. The Church is not a place for the perfect, as the Lord himself reminds us: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mk 2:17). In times of difficulty, it is the recognition of our own weaknesses and failings as well as our love for the Lord that spurs us on. In times of difficulty, we recognize that it is to the Lord and the Blessed Virgin Mary that we must turn.
As Mother of Jesus, Mary is present in the Church and takes part, as a mother, in the ongoing, monumental struggle against the powers of darkness that we are experiencing today in such a painful way.7 As Mother of the Church, she is our Mother, and we confidently turn to her, the Virgin most faithful, knowing that in the same way that a mother cannot forget her baby (Is 49:15), so too is it impossible for our Blessed Mother to forget her children. To her we raise our eyes as we strive to increase in holiness, knowing that she “helps all her children, wherever they may be and whatever their condition, to find in Christ the path to the Father’s house.”8
Mary, Mother of the Church, Virgin most faithful, pray for us, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.
Sharon van der Sloot
1 “Anyway,” from a sign on the wall of Shishu Bhavan, the children’s home in Calcutta; quoted in Mother Teresa: A Simple Path, compiled by Lucinda Vardey (New York: Ballantine Books, 1995), 185.
2 Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, Priests for the Third Millennium (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, 2000), 86-87.
3 Ibid., 67.
4 Mother Teresa: A Simple Path, 59-60.
5 CCC, 2030.
6 Dolan, Priests for the Third Millennium, 71.
7 Cf. St. John Paul II, Redemptoris Mater (March 25, 1987), 47; available from http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_25031987_redemptoris-mater.html; Internet; accessed 20 October 2018.