During a recent visit to Sweden, Pope Francis claimed that the “identity card” of Christians is found in the Beatitudes. He said they describe Jesus’ spirituality and the attitude Jesus expects to find in a disciple who is doing ministry in his name.
As I describe each of them, think about which one resonates with you. These reflections are based on the Gospel of Matthew’s description of the Beatitudes, which place Jesus on a mountain, where he describes the eight qualities of a disciple.
Fr. Solanus Casey Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit
What does it mean to be “poor in spirit?” In his book on the Beatitudes, Robert Ellsberg suggests that poor in spirit refers to a spirit of emptiness and availability for whatever gifts or mission God may send us.
To be spiritually poor is to stand apart from the criteria by which the world measures success. Furthermore, those who are poor in spirit have an acute sense of their own limitations.
Surely, one friend of God who lived this Beatitude in a quiet yet radical way is our very own Fr. Solanus Casey.
Bernard Casey was born on November 25, 1870, one of sixteen children. He was baptized at St. Joseph Mission Church in Prescott, Wisconsin, and given the name Bernard Francis Casey. We pick up his life story as he is preparing for first vows in the Capuchin religious community.
Academic courses at that time were taught in German and Latin. Since he had problems with both languages, he did not do well in his theological studies. We witness early on his spirit of emptiness and availability when his superiors requested that he sign a letter of intent. It stated, “I therefore will lay no claim whatsoever if [my superiors] should think me not worthy or unable for the priesthood and I always will humbly submit to their appointments.”
Bernard Casey was ordained to the priesthood but he was not allowed to hear confessions or preach. Whereby many candidates for the priesthood would be disappointed or resentful with this restriction, Father Solanus’s response was Deo Gratias—a phrase found repeatedly in his notebooks. It reflected a willingness to accept what seemed desired by God, but also an actual gratitude in embracing it. This attitude of what he called “providential abandonment” found expression in his door ministry as porter in Manhattan, Detroit, and Brooklyn. When meeting with people suffering from various illnesses, he always encouraged them to “Thank God ahead of time” for the manner in which God chose to answer their prayers.
Over time it became clear that God gifted him with the charism of healing. He was busy all day answering the door, counseling people, praying with them about their problems and, through God’s grace, healing them. His superiors ordered him to keep a notebook of all the people who came to him with illnesses and the healing they received. By the time of his death, he had filled seven notebooks.
He was also gifted with the charism of prophecy. He predicted the future, telling a woman whose son suffered from polio not to worry, for God would heal him. Then again, he told an elderly woman that it was her time—God wanted her home.
Father Solanus took no credit for the amazing miracles that took place through his blessing. He saw himself as a channel of Christ’s love and an instrument of God’s peace. He would often say, “God condescends to use our powers, if we don’t spoil his plans by ours.”
Are you called to witness such purity of heart?
Blessed Are Those Who Mourn
I may be putting a little different spin on this beatitude, but I think it refers to those who have an unusually capacity to empathize with those in deep pain through loss, illness, death, oppression.
Most of us who are familiar with Etty Hillesum met her through her published diary, The Interrupted Life. Here we meet a young Jewish woman from the Netherlands whose family—father, mother, and two brothers—would lose their lives along with Etty at Auschwitz. Etty described herself and her family as cultural Jews. Religion was not central to their lives.
When we first meet Etty, she is twenty-seven years old, exploring her relationships with men as well as searching for an authentic spiritual life. She did not belong to any organized religion. Her spiritual life was nourished by a variety of sources: the poet Rilke, St. Augustine, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, the Bible.
In his final General Audience, Ash Wednesday 2013, Pope Benedict mentions Etty: “This frail and dissatisfied young woman, transfigured by faith, became a woman full of love and inner peace who was able to declare: ‘I live in constant intimacy with God.’”
Through the pages of her diaries she not only describes this deepening relationship with God, but she also chronicles the horror that she, her family, friends, and fellow Jews experienced at the hands of the Nazis. She states, “The threat grows ever greater and terror increases from day to day. I draw prayer round me like a dark protective wall, withdraw within it, and then step outside again, calmer and stronger and more collected again.”
When the round-up of Jews began for internment in Westerbork camp, the place from which a transport train left weekly for Auschwitz, Etty volunteered to work there. She wanted to be with her people, experiencing their anguish, in order to give them a word of comfort, a smile, a warm gesture.
“How great are the needs of your creatures on earth, oh God,” she wrote. “I thank You for letting so many people come to me with their inner needs. They sit there, talking quietly, and quite unsuspectedly and suddenly their need erupts in all its nakedness. There they are, bundles of human misery, desperate and unable to face life. And that’s when my task begins.”
The last words Etty entered in her diary sum up the meaning of her life and the reason why I chose her as a living expression of this Beatitude: “We should be willing to act as a balm for all wounds.”
Are you being called to “act as a balm for all wounds” in ways such as visiting someone in the hospital or hospice, caring for an aging parent, comforting a sick child or someone mentally or emotionally handicapped?
Blessed Are the Meek
What does it mean to be “meek”? Webster’s dictionary defines meekness as gentleness, enduring injury with patience and without resentment. Yet, who wants to be meek? It is not a quality our society applauds. Why was this disposition of value to Jesus? Is there a power in meekness?
Therese of Lisieux shows us there is.
She described her path as the Little Way of absolute trust and self-surrender. Through her autobiography, Theresa describes her maturation under grace, as she grew from a spoiled, pampered child into a young woman whose ardent love of God and insights into the spiritual life earned her the title Doctor of the Church.
Therese dreamed of dramatic vocations, of making great sacrifices for God, yet she realized that God wanted her to serve him right where she was. Therese states, “I feel within me other vocations—warrior, priest, apostle, martyr—yet I realized that I was called to ‘be’ love right where I am, in Carmel, among the hurt and rigid people so much in need of the core of Jesus message: love.”
Few of us are called to do great things for God as a church leader, a martyr, great reformer, teacher, or preacher. Therese’s little way is a reminder to all of us that each moment, accepted and lived in a spirit of love, in deep trust and self-surrender, is the living out of this Beatitude.
Are you called to “be love” right where you are, in your parish, home, or work place?
Blessed Are the Merciful
Surely none of us are surprised that the person I have chosen to represent this Beatitude is Pope Francis. Mercy is the defining quality of his pontificate. Millions of people have experienced his tone and manner, his style of persuasion and accompaniment, his mercy rather than his judgment, as a breath of fresh air.
In an article in America magazine, “Open to All,” Sr. Katarina Schuth asks the question, “Why has Pope Francis so captured the imagination of believers and nonbelievers alike?”
The answers of responders are telling. One woman states, “Pope Francis emphasizes God’s mercy and does not scold or reprimand; he does not just talk, but acts like Jesus especially by showing his love for the poor. His life is simple—no trappings of office, no special privileges.”
Another person comments, “He excludes no one and shows no favoritism; he exudes warmth, mercy, and happiness as he engages with so many people.” One says, “Pope Francis daily reminds us, ‘Being Church means being God’s people. This means that we are to be God’s leaven in the midst of humanity. The Church must be a place of mercy freely given, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven, and encouraged to live the good life of the gospel.”
Are you one of those ministers whose charism is to extend mercy? Do you have a special sensitivity to alleviate the suffering of the poor, the outcast, and the marginalized in your parish, neighborhood, and family?
Blessed Are the Pure of Heart
According to the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, “To be pure of heart is to will one thing.” The pure-hearted are notable for their concentration. Nelson Mandela willed one thing: equality for the black community of Africa. The consequence for his single-minded commitment was twenty-seven years in prison for his effort to overthrow a government committed to apartheid.
Over time and through significant life experiences, Mandela became involved in the African National Congress, which altered his perspective and fostered his commitment to dedicate his life to free his people from racial, economic, and political inequality. In his book, The Long Road to Freedom, he states, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can to taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
In 1990 Mandela was released from prison and joined negotiations with President de Klerk to abolish apartheid and establish multiracial elections. In 1994, Mandela became South Africa’s first black president.
“What counts in life,” he stated, “ is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.”
Has God called you to implement a dedication to a particular cause that will leave the Church and world a better place?
Blessed Are Those Who Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness
I chose Thomas Merton as an example of this Beatitude because he is considered one of the most influential spiritual writers of the twentieth century. Besides being a Trappist monk, he was also a prophet who prodded men and women through his writings to move beyond a privatized spirituality to one that engaged the world through the social teachings of the gospel.
We pick up with Merton in April 1948. He is taking his first trip out of the monastery in seven years for a doctor’s appointment. He wondered how he would react at meeting once again, face to face, the wicked world.
In Louisville, he had a religious experience that changed his life:
At the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. . . . I met the world and I found it no longer so wicked after all. Perhaps all the things I had resented about the world when I left it were defects of my own that I had projected upon it. Now, on the contrary, I found that everything stirred me with a deep sense of compassion.
From a spirituality of withdrawal, Merton now turned to a spirituality of engagement with the world and encouraged others to do the same. He recognized the intimate connection between social awareness and contemplation. “Prayer,” he stated, “does not blind us to the world but it transforms our vision of the world, and makes us see it, all men, and all the history of mankind, in the light of God.”
In the tumultuous 1960s and 70s, Merton wrote a number of essays dealing with the social and political upheavals of the times: peace, racial tolerance, poverty, and social equality. In the Church he was a prophetic voice for peace, justice, and non-violence.
Do you have a hunger and thirst for righteousness? Do you have a commitment to dedicate your time and energy to issues of social justice, such as the end of abortion, human trafficking, racism, war, and oppression of every kind?
Blessed Are the Peacemakers
One woman who dedicated her life to the cause of peace was Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. Reflecting on her childhood, she wrote,
Whatever I had read as a child about the saints thrilled me. I could see the nobility of giving one’s life for the sick, the maimed, the leper. . . . But there was another question in my mind. Why was so much done in remedying the evil instead of avoiding it in the first place?. . . Where were the saints to try to change the social order, not just to minister to the slaves, but to do away with slavery?
After her conversion to the Catholic Church, Dorothy spent many years looking for a way to reconcile her faith and her commitment to change the social order. The answer came in 1932 with a providential meeting with Peter Maurin. Along with publishing the Catholic Worker newspaper, Dorothy and Peter opened “houses of hospitality” for the poor in New York City.
In keeping with her commitment to the central message of the Sermon on the Mount, Dorothy became a tireless advocate for peace and non–violence. This commitment led her to engage in campaigns of civil disobedience, protesting civil defense bills, the Cold War, and the war in Vietnam. Whether one agrees or not with her stance on these issues, her effort to live what she believed is a challenge to us all.
In his book, My Life With The Saints, Fr. James Martin recalls that in 1973, at the age of 76, Dorothy was arrested and jailed for her participation in a United Farm Workers Rally. A striking black and white photograph taken that day shows the birdlike, gray-haired woman wearing a secondhand dress and sitting on a folding chair. Dorothy gazes up calmly at two burly police officers, armed, who towered over her. “Here” observes Fr. Martin, “is a portrait of a lifetime of commitment, the dignity of discipleship and the absolute rightness of the gospel.”
As we look around our world today where chaos, violence, misunderstanding, and hatred seem to rule the day, do we not find ourselves asking, Where are our peace-makers? Do you resonate with the call to be a peacemaker in your extended family, parish community, congregation, work place, local or national government?
Blessed Are Those Who Are Persecuted for Righteousness Sake
We pick up his life story as the newly appointed Archbishop of El Salvador: 1977-1980.
Members of the government, military, and the oligarchy families were delighted with his appointment for they considered him safe—one of them. Within three years, however, Romero underwent a radical conversion that had profound implications for himself, his Church, and especially for the poor. This conversion was brought about through relationships.
First, his eyes were opened and his compassion increased as he listened to the heart-breaking stories of widows, mothers, and daughters describing the episodes of fathers, husbands, brothers, sons being taken from their homes, tortured, mutilated or killed right in front of them by the military because of their efforts to organize and better themselves.
Second, his eyes were opened by the assassination of his close friend, Fr. Rutilio Grande, SJ, a former teacher and rector of the national seminary who was respected and loved by all. This death further unmasked the truth—the oppression of a government against anyone who sought to help the poor rise out of their poverty and oppression.
What follows is an excerpt from Romero’s funeral homily:
“Real persecution has been directed against the poor, the body of Christ. . . . And for that reason when the Church has organized and united itself around the hopes and anxieties of the poor, it has incurred the same fate as that of Jesus and of the poor: persecution.”
Two gunmen assassinated Bishop Romero while he was celebrating Mass on March 24, 1980. Aware of the possibility of assassination, he had stated, “If my death is accepted by God, let it be for the liberation of my people and a testament of hope in the future.”
Unfortunately, the cost of discipleship and the suffering of martyrdom are taking many forms throughout the world and in our own country today. Are you, in a particular way, being called to stand up and speak out for the cause of justice and righteousness?
As you have reflected upon these disciples of Jesus who model for us how to live a particular Beatitude, I hope you also have caught a glimpse of what holiness looks like. The self-giving love modeled by Jesus found unique expression in the way they lived; in the choices they made; in the struggles to be faithful even in the face of doubts and disappointments.
Each person provides inspiration for us to go and do likewise. Jesus’ spirituality, his Beatitudes, finds expression through us.