It is the Lenten season once again, the season of conversion and repentance and sincere turning back to God, aware of His undying love for us, His constantly straying sheep. There may be lurking in our thoughts the idea that this is just going to be another Lenten season in which we will be left unchanged. We have had many of them, begged for God’s grace to change us and still we find ourselves struggling with the same sins and failures of the past years. Does grace still change us? What does that change look like?
I recently came across the interesting conversion story of Fr. Juan Jose Martinez. As a child and during his adolescence years, his heart was filled with hatred for priests and the Catholic Church. On Sunday mornings, he would look out of the balcony of his house at people going to Mass and spit at them, insult them, and tell them that the Church was just “a sect that wanted their money.” He blatantly refused to receive any religious upbringing and his parents were not believers. His friends relentlessly invited him to join them in their Catholic Charismatic Renewal prayer group sessions at their parish each Thursday. He went with them one day just to mock and make fun of them because he believed that they were stupid and dumb people. He described the devotion of this group to be Blessed Sacrament rather humorously, “They were all looking at a golden box at the back of the church. I didn’t know what it was, but I thought it was where the parish priest kept the money.”
Strangely, he found himself coming back every Thursday to sit still in front of the Tabernacle. In his words, “Little by little, the love of God was penetrating my heart: I was 15 years old and I started to sing at Mass, which meant I would attend Mass on Saturdays. I liked being in front of the tabernacle and little by little, I realized that God existed and He loved me. I felt the love of God. The Charismatic Renewal group, which I had come to make fun of, helped me a lot.”
He would eventually receive the Sacraments of Initiation and begin to attend daily Mass. In the course of his slow conversion that led him to shed many of his earlier ideas about God and the Church, he made a commitment to God in these words, “Lord, I am yours for whatever you need.” God took him at his word.
He later sensed God inviting him to enter into the seminary at the age of 17 to become a priest. His father was infuriated at his request to become a priest and beat Juan severely. His father was more willing to pay for his studies in the United States than to let him become a Catholic priest. But Juan bid his time and patiently waited and continued to nurture his vocation till his father finally gave him permission to go to the seminary in May 1999. He was ordained a priest in 2006 and had the great privilege of administering the Sacrament of Holy Anointing to his father who passed away a few years later.
The young Juan who hated priests and the Church, who used to spit on worshippers and who came to Church just to mock worshippers is now Fr. Juan Jose Martinez of the diocese of Almeria, Spain. His story is a testament that the grace of God can and still changes us completely, heart, mind, body and soul, but only on one condition – that we are ready to belong to God completely and to do only what pleases Him. For grace to transform us completely from the inside out, we must have the same attitude and sentiments towards God that we find in the words of the young Juan, “Lord, I am yours for whatever you need.”
In the Second Reading, St. Paul reminds St. Timothy that, in Jesus Christ, God offers us all the graces that we need, “The grace bestowed on us in Christ Jesus before time began.” He also mentions how this grace can affect our lives. Divine grace transforms us from weaklings to persons with such inner strength that we can “bear our share of the hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God.” Grace also enlightens and moves us away from sinful lives towards love of God and neighbor as His children and to participate in the very life and love of God, “He saved us (by grace) and called us to a holy life.” The story of Fr. Juan, the sufferings that he was ready to endure for his vocation, and his readiness to embark on a new life in the service of God and neighbor are testaments to the transforming power of grace today.
The Transfiguration of Jesus in today’s Gospel is not Christ Jesus showing off His divine power or majesty; rather it is the Father revealing to us a brief glimpse of the abundance of grace that He has offered to us in Jesus Christ. This grace in Christ is the seed of glory. When the amazed disciples indicate their awe at the change of Jesus’ face and their desire to remain with Him on the mountain, the Father responds by pointing to Jesus as the way of transformation, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased, listen to Him.” To be transformed from the inside out, they must unite with Jesus and imitate Jesus who belongs completely to the Father and who always acts to please the Father; not Himself. As Jesus’ clothes and face are transformed, we are divinely assured that more deeply will we be transformed by divine grace if we are willing to belong to Him and to allow Him to use us and all that we are and have as He wills.
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, our desire to change for the better is a sign that we are made by God and for God. It is also a sign of God’s presence in our lives and our call to surrender to Him completely. We want to have strength in our battles and hardships, to be saved from our sinful addictions and to live holy lives and thus to enjoy the peace and joy that comes from such authentic interior change. Let us not be fooled – nothing from outside can change our hearts for the better if it is not inspired and infused with the grace of God and accompanied by our sincere desire to belong to Him for His good pleasure.
We see here in the Philippines a certain futile tendency to bring about change in drug addicts through threats, warnings, fear of death penalty, etc. Many of these our brothers and sisters desire to change for the better but they just cannot do so. True interior change comes about only through the grace of God and that willingness on our part not to live for ourselves alone but for Him who “for our sake died and was raised,”(2 Cor 5:15) and our willingness do only what pleases Him.
Yes, God’s grace will and can transform us completely when we are willing to say sincerely from our hearts, “Lord, I am yours for whatever you need.” Let us surrender all that we have and are to Him through Mary, the Mother and Mediatrix of all Grace. She through whom the Author of Grace, Jesus Christ, came to us, also obtains for us all the graces that we need from Jesus and helps us to open our hearts to the transforming power of God’s grace. Mother Mary had no greater desire than to belong to God and to be completely at His disposal for whatever He willed for her, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to your word.” Divine grace transformed her from a chaste virgin to the worthy Mother of God.
Fr. Juan looked intensely and continuously at the Tabernacle and he was transformed because he encountered the sole Author of grace, Jesus Christ, sacramentally present in the Tabernacle and he (Juan) was tired of living for himself. As we encounter Jesus in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass today, let us remember that grace is given to us so that we belong to God as His children who are ready to do only what pleases Him. The grace of God always has the power to transform us and make us strong in our difficulties, save us from our sins and sinful tendencies, and make us holy like Jesus. Will the grace of this Eucharist change us completely today? It all depends on our willingness to say from our hearts, “Lord, I am yours for whatever you need.”
Glory to Jesus!!! Honor to Mary!!!