by Fr. David May.
"The renewal of the Church is also achieved through the witness offered by the lives of believers: by their very existence in the world, Christians are called to radiate the word of truth that the Lord Jesus has left us." (# 6)
This is the latest line that caught my eye as I continue to meditate on the pope’s letter introducing the Year of Faith, the letter entitled Porta Fidei (The Door of Faith).
Sometimes simply touching the truth in a Christian believer is more effective than any number of explanations and arguments about that truth.
Whether we have people gifted in teaching dogma or endowed with a special gift to live it out in a vivid way, the fact is that we need both. In this article I want to write about the latter.
Recently, another of our members, Helen Schreiner, passed away. Helen, who joined Madonna House in 1971, was a secretary to Catherine Doherty and to her successors. As far as I could tell, she was a good secretary. She knew shorthand, she was a really fast typist, and she learned at least somewhat how to do emails.
But it was what she brought to day-to-day living that bore witness to that spark of the Gospel that the Pope is writing about.
Helen was a down-to-earth, German-Canadian prairie girl, the youngest of eleven children. She had loads of common sense, a good sense of humor, and an ability to make an incredibly good apple strudel (with a very delicate, melt-in-your-mouth crust).
She was probably never in a theological argument in her whole life, but she could wrap priests, bishops, and theology students around her little finger.
The story is told of how once when she and Linda Lambeth, another member of Madonna House, were in Rome on pilgrimage, they were at a barbeque. Mention was made of the many people who loved the Holy Father and believed in all his teachings.
"How long does it take to think like that?’ a priest commented, "to get brainwashed like that?" Without a moment’s hesitation, Helen responded: "Not very long, Father, if you are smart." According to Linda, he was stunned and speechless.
Since the priest writing this article is also a lover of the popes and their teachings, Helen and I never had a "discussion" like that. What I loved in her was that she was simply a good servant, living out in a beautiful way that line from John 12: Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also.
You can go a long way spiritually being a good servant, being where you are supposed to be, with no fanfare, no grand entrances, not too much drama.
Christ himself chose that way of living, entering the human story by way of Bethlehem and Nazareth and spending most of his life as a carpenter.
I don’t think there are too many mystical insights, ecstasies, or visions coming out of "Nazareth", whether the original one in the Holy Land or the everyday one most of us live in.
But what happens to people like Helen, and maybe you and me, is that there is a slow, gradual, growing communion with Jesus Christ, a kind of mutual understanding with him.
You come to see that all the little tasks, those endlessly repeated things of life, are not beneath us, not meaningless, not useless.
They are stepping stones into the heart of the Beloved, and that heart of his is a glorious dwelling place. For those who learn as servants to live in the heart of Christ, themselves develop tender hearts in imitation of his.
What distinguished Helen the most, in my knowing her, was this tenderness and warmth of heart, that true and dear quality of the Christian who is close to the Lord.
I saw that quality in Helen from the very beginning (I came to MH a couple of years after her).
When she tried to make her Madonna House promises in public, as is our custom here, she could barely squeak out the words of commitment.
I don’t think it had to do with fear of commitment or even simple nervousness in the public setting of the liturgy. Rather, it had to do with being overwhelmed by the astonishing fact of being loved by Christ and chosen to serve him in the MH vocation.
Soft, soft heart! The kind you hope that, if you do get it, you don’t have to show it in public like Helen did!
But who in that chapel wasn’t touched by the sight of someone in whom it showed for all to see just how wondrous it is to be loved personally by Jesus Christ!
And then there was Blessed Margaret of Castello. Blessed Margaret was one of those medieval saints who got all the bad breaks and loved everyone anyway.
Born blind and deformed, locked away out of sight for years by her parents and then abandoned by them when she was not cured at a local shrine. She was helped by beggars and was taken in by a succession of people, at first only the poor, and eventually entered a convent.
From there she was thrown out because she was too pious for them! Later she became a Dominican tertiary, visiting the sick, visiting prisoners, and loving everyone till she died at age 33. Yikes!
Helen just loved this little saint and made a special effort while on that same pilgrimage in Italy to visit her shrine, hidden away somewhere and little known except to those with a special devotion to her.
Who loves best such a humble, mistreated, deformed, utterly tender-hearted saint but someone who understands in great measure the mercy of God for the poor, the needy, the "failures," the lowly?
Whom this world regards as useless and less than human, Christ loves most tenderly of all. He sees the treasure buried in the field of broken humanity, and calls it forth unto glory.
I think Helen understood all this, even though I never heard her say a word about it. She would just tear up at the thought of it all, pull out her handkerchief for a moment, sigh, and then later on proceed to clobber someone in a game of cards, enjoying every moment of it.
You had the feeling you were in the presence of someone who brought to everyday living a spark of heaven right within the thick covering of the completely human.
I wonder what experience of personal poverty and helplessness it took for her to so deeply understand these things, and like Blessed Margaret, to harbor no rancor at her "fate."
And it’s not that Helen always "understood" what was happening to her, especially as sickness took its toll during her last years. She didn’t "understand," perhaps, for the mystery of the Cross as it reveals itself often eludes human comprehension.
But there is a grace to trust, to accept, to not become embittered. This grace is offered to all of us, since we all experience, sooner or later, the poverty of humanity that must cry out from ever greater depths for salvation from the One who alone is merciful and loves mankind.
Helen "radiated the word of truth that the Lord Jesus has left us."
Call it service, call it joy in giving, call it self-offering, call it poverty of spirit accepted in faith. Whatever name we give it, there is one Name glorified in it all, that Name which is above every other name: Jesus Christ.
How our world today needs to meet people who radiantly bear witness by their lives to this One who has loved us to the end!
In an upcoming column, I want to take a look at a little sample of the Catechism of the Catholic Church as an example of how right dogma inspires and clarifies our way.
If you enjoy our articles, we ask you to please consider subscribing to the print edition of Restoration; it's only $10 a year, and will help us stay in print. Thanks, and God bless you!