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December 2007

Catholic Witness



It's been a lucrative year for the God-haters. Or, more precisely, for revilers of the one true God, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and His one true Holy Catholic Church. Best-selling atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens don't waste much time on spiritual phantoms like Allah or The Great Thumb. They know better. Besides which they can do a roaring trade in anti-Catholic rants without fear of hate crime prosecutions or fatwas.

Infinitely more dogmatic than the supernatural Faith they decry, how fitting that the zealots of naturalism should close their bumper year with the First Council of Atheists, to be held in Toledo, Spain, from 7-9 December. Convened by the International Federation of Atheists, we can picture the quasi-religious scene: Beneath a giant portrait of The God-Father (Charles Darwin) they open with a prayer to The Great Amoeba (from Whence they evolved), then meditate on readings from Holy Writ (The Origin of Species; The God Delusion) before issuing anathema sit denunciations of Amoeba-to-Man Deniers (like Fr Thomas Crean and Professor Michael Behe) who dare to flatten their creaking, pseudo-scientific facade.

Today as in every age, of course, our intellectual response to the atheistic onslaught is vital. And yet, since these self-absorbed ideologues and the hapless generations they have formed in their godless image scorn rational debate, Catholic witness remains our prime offensive weapon. It is by living out that selfless simplicity radiating from the Christmas crib that we finally disarm and draw a faithless world to the Child.

In this regard, The Parish Visitors of Mary Immaculate embody the spirit of the Nativity in a singular, familial way. Based in New York, the vocation of these "contemplative-missionary" nuns is to:

"Sustain Catholic family life; seek stray Catholics to bring them back to the fold; visit families for person-to-person evangelisation/catechesis; hold religion classes for children and adults; rescue boys and girls from danger; direct young people to helpful clubs and wholesome recreation; help the needy obtain assistance; promote the Rosary and devotions in the home."

Through a public vow of poverty and a Christ-like spirit controlling their thoughts and acts, they "witness to true values in the world," serving the poor and the dignity of man "through the eyes of Christ, Who considers what we are and not what we possess."

The ensuing testimony to this Catholic faith in action speaks volumes. Its cries out to the God-haters: "Rage, rationalise and line your pockets while you can. The joyful message and healing power of the Holy Child endures!'

Healing, joy and peace: Christmas gifts purchased at great price and offered, through faithful witness, to faithless men. Even and especially to Dawkins and his blind brethren that they, too, might see - and so, like Andrew, be set free:

From: Andrew in prison
To: The Parish Visitors at Marycrest convent

Dear Sisters,

This is a true story.

Johnny became my cell-partner just four weeks before Christmas. He was not over twenty-five and, all in all, very likable. He didn't say much about himself. But something deep and oppressive was eating into his heart. For hours at a time he would sit and stare into space while his eyes held a haunting look that spoke plainer than words that something was amiss. I tried hard to cheer him, but all my efforts proved useless.

A few days later he was called by the Catholic Chaplain for his first personal interview, a routine that all Catholic prisoners are compelled to undergo. That evening he was more bitter and sardonic than ever; he mercilessly criticized prison life in a violent outflow of rage. From the small scraps that I could gather during his raving, I learned that he had traveled west in a fruitless search for employment. When every effort proved unsuccessful and because he was hungry and too proud to ask for alms, he stole.

Several days after his sudden outburst he again resumed the role of a silent partner. Then an unexpected letter came. It contained the tragic news that one of his two young children was ill; the last of the money was gone, and rent was due. His wife was desperate. Her heart-rending letter sent Johnny to the Chaplain. But there was nothing that the priest could do personally except give Johnny a special letter to write with the instructions to tell his devoted wife to go and see the parish priest.

That evening Johnny paced the floor, hour after hour, and not until the signal for "lights out" did he cease his mad walking. He wrote a letter the next day and during the days that followed he was moody and silent. Finally, he received an answer from his wife.

He tore open the envelope that had been re-sealed by prison administration. In his haste to extract the letter, a small piece of parchment upon which was printed a short poem, fluttered to the cement floor. He read and reread the letter, and then picked up the parchment and feasted his eyes on the poem. His face brightened and for the rest of the evening he was pleasant and cheerful.

The weeks sped by and a few days before Christmas he received another letter from his wife. Enclosed was a letter scrawled in a childish hand; it was from his son. To me it was unreadable, but to him it was a message sent from God. Then to my surprise he began to sing. If ever a man could be happy in prison, he was the man. Suddenly he stopped his singing and asked:

"Have you ever heard of the Parish Visitors?"

"No," I replied.

"Well, I never did either, until my wife wrote me and told me about them. "You know, I haven't really been bad. But I must confess that my past isn't anything to shout about, so I don't intend to cry, now, about being here. I have always been willing to pay my just debts." He stopped for a drink of water.

"What I can't understand is why the innocent have to suffer for the crime of the guilty. Here I am; I get three meals a day and a warm place to sleep and I committed the crime. When I first came here my wife was very much in need of money; she couldn't buy a loaf of bread, and had no prospects of getting it." He paused again while the soft notes of a guitar came drifting from another cell.

"There you are," he almost shouted, "music for us, while our virtuous loved ones starve." I tried to explain to him that things could always get worse. He looked at me for a moment, walked over to the shelf and from his personal box took three letters that he had received from his wife and handed them to me.

"Read those!" were his only words.

I opened the first. It was a woeful letter; it was almost tragic. When I was part way through, a lump came into my throat and I felt a strange feeling in the region of my heart. It brought the desire to do something for this unfortunate family. I continued with the letter. It told of a child who was very sick; there was no money to pay a doctor's bill, so no doctor would be visited; a home that was frigid and a table that was bare.

No wonder he nearly became insane when he read that letter. I opened the second. It was as different as night is from day. In it his wife told him that she had done just as he had instructed, and had taken his letter to the parish priest. And the very next day a Sister from the Parish Visitors' convent had visited them. The sympathy and kindness expressed by the Sister was heartening. The bitterness of accepting charity, yes, the sting itself was gone, banished by the smile and comforting voice of the Sister.

The third letter was still more cheerful, it held a new tone, like the lilt of songbirds in early spring. Here was joy, the joy of new life. The Sisters had called many times, they had brought food and clothing for the children, as well as heating fuel, and better still, Mother Superior had secured a position for his wife. She would start working in the morning. The lady downstairs would take the children to the Catholic day nursery. The best solution until Johnny would be released from prison.

I turned my head to hide the moisture in my eyes. I couldn't talk, for the lump was oppressive in my throat. I picked up one of the small poems that had been sent in his letters and read it. For the first time in my life I found the reason that so many people find peace in religion. The verse was like many others that I had read, but none ever came from the same source, or at a time when the true meaning of the words hit home:

God Bless You

God bless you! Words are empty things -
   We speak and think not of our sayings -
But in this phrase forever rings
   The higher tenderness of praying.
It means so much; it means that I
   Would have no fears or frets distress you,
Nor have your heart timed to a sigh,
   God bless you!

This trinity of blessed words
   Holds all my wishes, oldest, newest,
The fairest deeds that can be wrought,
   The holiest greeting, and the truest,
Tis more than wishing joy and wealth,
   That kindly fortune may caress you,
That you may have success and health,
   God bless you!

God bless you! Why, it means so much,
   I almost whisper as I say it;
I dream that unseen fingers touch
   My hands in answer as I pray it.
May all it means to all mankind
   In all its wondrousness possess you,
Through sun and cloud and calm and wind,
   God bless you!

The words were like drifting snowflakes and carefree. They beat with new meanings against my heart. What would my friends say - me, a supposed to be hardened criminal, feeling sentimental. But I didn't seem to care.

From a distance a new faith came on wings. I wanted to do something for the Community that was so Christ-like, so unselfish, kind and good that they offered their lives in consecrated service in order to bring aching hearts the peace of life and the everlasting happiness of eternal light.

In this one instance five hearts were made to sing again. The sad heart of a loving mother, the hearts of two children that didn't know why they were allowed to be cold, the heart of a father who had failed in life, and the heart of a man who must always live as an OUTCAST to the world.

God bless the Parish Visitors.


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