There is a quote by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI that frequently makes the rounds in social media: “The world offers you comfort. But you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.” On the surface it is a summons to rise above the things of this world in order to achieve the greatness we are made for by God. The question is: How do we achieve this greatness? The answer is through the Cross.
In the West, we live in an age of comfort. This comfort is plaguing the Church at pandemic levels. It has eroded away her evangelical witness and it has led far too many Catholics to abandon the call of Christian discipleship for the things of this world. It has also led far too many in the ministerial priesthood to fail to teach, to govern, and to sanctify the People of God. Comfort acts as a cancer within the Mystical Body destroying everything it touches in the process.
The path to holiness is not an easy one. It is deeply difficult and it is impossible for us to achieve on our own. It is only through a radical surrender of our entire being to Christ that we can be transfigured into who we are meant to be for the salvation of souls and our own salvation. The means by which Christ transforms us into great saints is through the Cross. It is the only way because it is the same path He walked.
I will freely admit that I did not come to understand this central aspect of the Christian life until a few years ago after many years of intense suffering and after Our Lord quite literally placed three pieces of His True Cross in my hands when he entrusted them to me as their temporary guardian when I was 33-years-old. God was not subtle about it when He made it clear to me that I was to pick up my Cross and follow Him.
This should not have been difficult for me to understand. I’m a cradle Catholic, after all. The fact of the mater is, I never heard a passionate call from the priests of my childhood and young adulthood telling me to die-to-self united with Christ on the Cross. In fact, the love of God was frequently preached, but in a manner that was divorced from the Cross. “God loves us” is all I heard for decades. That’s well and good, but that statement lacks any depth without the full force of the Cross with it.
When I hear “God loves us” in a homily my immediate first thought is: “Yes, Father, but what does that mean? What does that love look like in our daily lives? What is Christ calling us to?” Through His love for us, Christ issues each one of us an invitation to walk the Way of the Cross and to be crucified on the Cross with Him because that is what love looks like. That is the love we are called to; a complete abandonment of self to God and in the service of others. It is the call to put others first, not ourselves, which is completely counter-cultural in an age of me and my wants and needs.
Over the course of the last few weeks, I have been working my way through Servant of God Catherine Doherty’s writings and biographies written about her. In many ways she is a woman after my own heart and a true spiritual sister. The most prevalent theme in her writing is the Cross. Multiple times throughout her life, holy men and women prophesied to her about the role of the Cross in her life. From her infancy, her own mother said that she was born under the sign of the Cross.
When Catherine was a child, an old woman who was a pilgrim roaming in the woods of her native Russia, came to her family’s home begging for food and a place to sleep. While she was visiting she told them of the coming dangers of Communism which she had seen in a vision and to Catherine she said: “Goldilocks, you will be married twice, but your Spouse is eternal. You have been chosen by Him for His work. Do not try to escape.” She was astonished and did not understand what it meant at the time.
When Catherine was older and had lived many years in an abusive marriage, she visited a monastery with her then husband. The monk said to her: “Katya, beloved of Mary. Your sign is the cross. Don’t fight it. For He who is crucified on it waits for you and loves you. Your breasts will feed Him who is thirsty; and from your womb His children shall spring up, if you are faithful. Be faithful, child of sorrow, whose eyes shall see the eyes of God. Child, you are predestined by God to do great works for Him. You will suffer much and know Christ’s pain; but don’t be afraid. You will also know His joy. Follow where He leads. Go in His footsteps.”
Catherine suffered tremendously as she nearly starved to death during the Marxist revolution of 1917 and fled her native land. She dedicated her life to the poor and fought hard against racial injustice, suffered years of abuse from her first husband, and battled Communism in her community and for the Church. She was tirelessly dedicated to the priesthood as a spiritual mother to priests. She was betrayed by those closest to her, which led to her being voted out of Friendship House, the lay apostolate she had founded. The loss eventually allowed for Christ to lead her to begin Madonna House, an international lay apostate dedicated to Our Heavenly Mother, hospitality, and service to the poor. There is one in my area.
It is easy for us to look at the lives of the saints and those held up by the Church as holy examples with an overly-sentimental view. Far too often we dismiss the reality of the Cross in their lives. We even domesticate it in relation to Christ Himself. The hardships, betrayals, rejections, failures, afflictions, abuses, and sufferings of this life are non-negotiable if we want to become saints. It is through these experiences that we are united more closely to Christ. It is through these afflictions that we learn how to love with the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
If we truly from our hearts ask Christ to show us how to love as He loves, see as He sees, and to forgive as He forgives then we must be ready for suffering. We must ask Him to help us bear it well, to persevere, and to strengthen us along the way. Some souls are born under the sign of the Cross in a more overt way based on God’s own mysterious designs. Catherine was one of those women who was called into greater depths of the mystery of the Cross. Even if God doesn’t call all people to the same level, He still calls all disciples to be crucified with Him.
A true Christian disciple knows we are called to embrace the sufferings of this life and to not let them rob us of faith, hope, and charity. We are to unite our own sufferings to Christ crucified for the salvation of souls. We should be seeking to die-to-self every single day in our relationships with others and beg God for the strength to submit fully to His will over our own.
What happens when we submit to God’s will and and walk united with Him on the Way of the Cross? We change the world. The Church regains her evangelical power. It is only then that God can use us to reach others and bring them to Him.
Catherine Doherty did not run from the Cross that loomed large—larger than most of us—over he life. She fought hard through a radical surrender to Christ to remain faithful despite the devastating failures, betrayals, poverty, abandonment, and abuses she endured. She sought to be crucified with her Beloved Savior and gave herself over for the salvation of souls.
We cannot complain about the state of the world and the Church if we refuse to embrace the Cross. A comfortable Church is a dead Church. We are not made for comfort because we are made for the Cross, which is the only place we will find the greatness we have been made for by God.
Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.Mark 8:34