When I was sixteen years old, and home sick from school for a week, I asked my mother to turn on the television for me before she left to do an errand. She put it on EWTN and I didn’t have the energy to get up and turn the channel. (Being a teenager I was looking for something more enticing!) A popular priest’s show came on and he talked about the Good Shepherd, then said: “Are you a leader or a follower? If you’re a leader, where are you leading your flock?” Following his show, the movie “Divine Mercy: No Escape” came on and I was enthralled by Saint Faustina’s life, particularly her charity toward those in need.
Then, this crazy idea popped into my head: Am I called to be a nun? It was shortly before I attended World Youth Day (WYD) 1993 in Denver and I secretly woke up a little earlier than usual for school every morning to ask God to show me. God works in ways that are both mysterious and mischievous. One of the WYD catechetical talks I attended was by the same priest that I saw on EWTN. He gave a fiery talk about vocations and the heroism of the martyrs. At the end there was an altar call; youth who believed that they may be called to the priesthood or consecrated life went forward. I don’t remember my feet touching the ground, but was soon on the stage with dozens of other young people. God’s grace flooded into my soul and I was literally trembling. Later, a woman who was sitting behind me during the talk said that she was praying for me to be baptized in the Holy Spirit.
Recently, when I was reflecting upon the Feast of the Transfiguration, I recalled this event. It made me wonder if this is how the apostles felt when they saw the “great light” and were filled with “great fear.” In his new book Meditations on the Holy Rosary, Father Dolindo Ruotolo describes the theophany:
“The great light had not yet entirely awakened the Apostles, and Peter talked in a foolish way, but when they saw a cloud enveloping Jesus, Moses and Elijah, maybe for the very sudden contrast between the intense light and the shadow of the cloud, they woke up entirely, and were taken by a great fear, because in that cloud the Father appeared pointing solemnly to the Son as Teacher of mankind. A solemn voice came from it that said: ‘This is my beloved Son, listen to Him.’”
How often do we listen to Jesus, especially in those moments in life when things don’t make sense and we are afraid?
In his inspiring story, Testimony of Hope: The Spiritual Exercises of Pope John Paul II, Venerable Francois Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan (1928-2002), a Vietnamese Cardinal, recalled his experience of spending thirteen years in a Communist prison. From the beginning of his confinement, Cardinal Van Thuan’s primary concern was whether or not he would be able to celebrate Mass. Though he was not able to bring anything with him when he was arrested, Cardinal Van Thuan was allowed to write to his family for necessities. He asked them for medicine for a stomach ache. They realized that Cardinal Van Thuan wanted wine to celebrate Mass and sent him some in a bottle marked “medicine for stomach ache”; they also hid hosts in with his clothes. Cardinal Van Thuan reflected:
I shall never be able to express my joy: every day I celebrated Mass with three drops of wine and one of water in the palm of my hand. Every day I was able to kneel before the Cross with Jesus, drink with him his most bitter chalice. Every day, when reciting the consecration, I confirmed with all my heart and with all my soul a new pact, an eternal pact between Jesus and me, through his Blood mixed with mine. They were the most beautiful masses of my life.
A dark and seemingly desperate situation was transfigured by the illuminating power of Christ’s presence and transforming love.
When Cardinal Van Thuan was later sent to a re-education camp, he and five Catholic prisoners arranged it so that they bunked near each other. Cardinal Van Thuan celebrated Mass in the dark and gave them Communion under the mosquito net. He recounted “I always carried the Eucharistic Christ in the pocket of my shirt.” During the breaks between indoctrination sessions, Cardinal Van Thuan secretly and reverently passed the Holy Eucharist to other groups of prisoners.
They all knew Jesus was among them, and he cures all physical and mental sufferings. At night, the prisoners took turns at Adoration. The Eucharistic Christ helps in an unimaginable way with his silent presence: many Catholics began to believe again enthusiastically. Their testimony of service and love made an ever greater impact on the other prisoners, even some Buddhists and non-Christians embraced the faith. Jesus’ force is irresistible. The darkness of the prison became a paschal light.
Cardinal Van Thuan continued, explaining: “Jesus began a revolution on the cross. The revolution of the civilization of love must begin in the Eucharist; and from here it must derive its force.” Later, he elucidated:
I will end with a dream; in it, the Roman Curia is like a large host, in the heart of the Church, which is like a great Cenacle. All of us are like grains of wheat that allow themselves to be ground by the exigencies of communion to form only one body, in full solidarity and full dedication, as bread of life for the world, as a sign of hope for humanity. Only one bread and only one body.
These words are reminiscent of St. Ignatius of Antioch’s letter, where he writes “I am the wheat of God and am ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.” Known as the “Doctor of Unity,” St. Ignatius wrote extensively on union with Christ and the members of His Church. Today, when our world and Church are torn by so many divisions, we need to come together around the Sacrament of Unity to once again be transfigured, recall our identity as a Church, and share the radiance of the Eucharistic Face of Christ. As Father Dolindo Ruotolo wrote,
Jesus prayed, and His transfiguration makes us understand what had to be His prayer. Literally illuminated by His infinite love for His Father, entirely enraptured in His glory, His face shone with divine light, and this very intense light made all His clothes entirely white. It was the most sublime of all ecstasies; it was the Word that gave glory to His Father and enjoyed His Father’s infinite love taking his assumed humanity in the splendor of His glory and the fragrance of His love; it was the Word erupting, so to speak, from His assumed humanity, rendering it almost diaphanous with light going through His body, and illuminating it. (Meditations on the Holy Rosary)
As we prostrate ourselves in awe with the apostles, may we also be mindful of Jesus’ words: “Get up and do not be afraid.” (Matthew 17:7) Our Lord gives us these mountain top experiences – like His best friends Peter, James, and John – to prepare us for what He is calling us to do. As Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, wrote:
The certainty with which the identity of consecrated life is defined is therefore surprising, [it is the] ‘icon of the transfigured Christ’ (Vita consecrata, 14) which reveals the glory and the face of the Father in the luminous splendor of the Spirit . . . . Supreme beauty, the sacrament of the mysterious beauty of the Eternal One. As Peter exclaimed on Tabor before that burst of light and splendor.” (“Witnesses to the Beauty of God: The Apostolic Exhortation Vita Consecrata 25 Years later”)