About 130 years ago in France, two men were sharing a train compartment: a young man who was smartly dressed, and an older man in simple clothing. The older gentleman was silently praying the Rosary, and the youth said contemptuously, “I see you still believe in that medieval clap-trap about praying, and I suppose you believe in the Virgin Mary and all the other religious hogwash the priests tell you.” The man answered, “Yes, I do—don’t you?” The young man laughed and said, “Me believe in superstition? I learned the truth in college—and if you’re smart you’ll throw those silly beads out the window and learn about the new science.” The old man asked, “The new science? I’m afraid I don’t understand—perhaps you could help me.” The youth smugly answered, “Well, assuming you can read, I’d be happy to mail you some literature . . . where should I send it?” The old man fumbled in his coat pocket for a moment, then pulled out his card, which read: Louis Pasteur, Paris Institute for Scientific Research (Tonne, Stories for Sermons, Vol. 11, #272).
Now, if you are unfamiliar with Louis Pasteur, you should know that he was a French biologist, microbiologist, and chemist who just happened to discover the principles of pasteurization and vaccination. He also created the first vaccines for rabies and anthrax. But, most importantly, he was a scientist who took his Catholic faith seriously—and practiced it!
In the Book of Sirach (3:17-18, 20, 28-29), we are reminded that the more we humble ourselves, the greater we will be; in God’s eyes, that is. In perusing our many saints, Godly greatness seems not to arrive in them until after the virtue of humility has become fully operative within their lives. And then, it is though a lightbulb has been illuminated. Everything is different. From that moment forward, these friends of God begin to see all that they are and all that they will ever become—as a gift from God. And further, that every gift they have been given is meant to be returned to the Giver of all things.
A recent saint whom I have come to admire is St. Gianna Beretta Molla (1922-1962). While nurturing her God-given talents as a physician, she also fell in love, married, and gave birth to four children. It was her fourth pregnancy, however, that pivoted her toward eventual sainthood. In her second month of pregnancy, she was told that she had a growing cancer and faced a decision. If she did not treat the cancer, her odds of surviving would decline. But, if she did treat the cancer, her unborn child would die. In her own words, this was her decision: “If you must decide between me and the child, do not hesitate: choose the child – I insist on it. Save her.” And one week after the birth of her daughter, at the age of 39, she passed into eternity.
In the lives of Louis Pasteur and St. Gianna Beretta Molla, we see humility and faith and trust—in action. We see that human gifts and talents are given to us for a time. But really, they are “on loan from God” for a time and meant to build up His kingdom and glorify Him.
Deep down, however, do we really believe this? Do we really believe that our talents have been given to us from God and are meant to make a difference in our world? Moreover, in a culture that seems to proclaim that “He who dies with the most toys wins,” just exactly what is the value of pursuing a life of holy humility?
The Gospel story (Luke 14:1, 7-14) for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time places Jesus in the midst of the Pharisees and teaching them regarding places of honor. Before entering into this scene, however, it is important to restate some of the critical highlights of Jesus’ own life. Jesus, the second person of the Holy Trinity:
- Was born without any honor.
- Lived in an obscure hill town for thirty years.
- Associated with the lowest elements of society and made friends with rejects.
- Was slandered repeatedly.
- Was falsely accused of everything under the sun.
- Was condemned to death by a kangaroo court.
- Died the death of a criminal.
At Calvary, in holy humility, Jesus hung before fallen humanity, loved, and forgave us. Through His Holy Cross, He restored us to life and gave us a blueprint to live our own lives; namely, that we will find joy, and Him, while using the gifts He has given us in service of others.
In our Gospel account, the Pharisees anguish over who should occupy the highest places of honor. But, as He always does, Jesus encourages them to look at things in a different way. Today, in our own families, we see this “different way” being deployed on many fronts. For example, we see mothers and fathers postponing careers so that they may nurture their young children. We see adult children, at considerable disruption to their own lives, taking the time to care for their aging parents. We see parishioners giving of their God-given time, talent, and treasure on behalf of others.
By doing so, we are living up to our “higher calling” of placing and serving others—first! Jesus tells us that for doing so, “you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”