“The Church,” Pope Francis recently wrote, “is missionary by her very nature: she was born "to go forth.”
Zeal for the Church, then, means that each one of us recognize that we are sent forth to the margins of the world. Not just to those with whom we are comfortable, but to the ends of the earth, even to the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian.
For the Lord sent us to proclaim the Kingdom of God and to Baptize all nations in his Name.
When I first came to this novena as a little child I thought I understood what that meant. It meant that God might call me to be a heroic missionary to some strange, dramatic foreign land where people dressed funny and spoke in a funny tongue. My childish heart dreamt of living the life of a prophet or even a martyr in such a land, bringing the saving news of Jesus to the poor ignorant foreigners who lived far across the seas.
When I was a teenager sitting in those pews, I had a more mature idea of what it meant to follow in the footsteps of Saint Francis Xavier, as the first stirrings of a priestly vocation began to echo in my soul. I began to see myself coming to know the language of a new people, learn their customs and share the good news of Jesus’ Gospel and the salvation he had won for us on the wood of the cross.
And now here I am, more than a half century since I attended my first novena at Saint John’s, all the more convinced that we sons and daughters of Saint Francis Xavier, are called to go on mission. But I now doubt whether our mission is to India or Boa or Japan. Rather, our mission, I have begun to suspect, is to those who walk the streets of Worcester and who inhabit the intimate corridors of our lives, neither knowing Jesus, nor experiencing his mercy, nor feeling his saving love.
And they wait for us at the margins of our lives.
When I was a teenager at Holy Cross, a year further along than the young John Madden, I was befriended by Frannie McGarth, long time City Manager of the Heart of the Commonwealth. “Worcester,” he once told me “is the place where everybody is at home. Vernon Hill, for example, has always been the place where people came fresh off the boat. First an Indian settlement, then French, then Irish, then Lithuanian and Polish, then Puerto Rican and Vietnamese and now, whoever gets off the bus, is welcome there…is welcome here. Worcester, is the place where everybody is at home.”
Councillor McGrath knew how to make people at home. Just like Father Madden and the good people of Saint John’s do at the Xavier center across the parking lot. People like the guy who since his divorce lost his job and then started drinking and now wanders the streets at night. People like the twins, mentally handicapped and always living on the edge, who’ve lived for these past sixty years half on the street and half in a shelter. People like the kid who got beat up at home for coming out and spent his first night on the street wondering whether it was less painful to keep walking or to lay down on the cold concrete. People like the prematurely old lady whose stolen basket is as filled with junk as her life is empty of love.
They are Lazarus, who used to beg for food on the front steps of the rich man's house, whose open sores the dogs used to come and lick, while the rich man turned his head the other way and stepped over the inconvenience on his front stoop.
And you remember how Lazarus went to heaven and the rich man went to hell? Why did the rich man go to hell? Because he was rich? No...there's no sin there. He went to hell because he failed to love his brother, to be a missionary to him, carrying the love of the Lord Jesus.
Hospitality, love for the stranger and the alien, the undocumented, the addicted and the one whom everyone else forgets is the way of the Saint and the Worcesterite and everyone ever baptized in the name of the one who died for us upon the cross with the words “Love them as I have loved you.”
For they wait for us at the margins of our lives. And its ironic that the hardest margins to reach are often much closer than the streets outside our houses. Sometimes those margins are terribly, painfully close to us.
Like that co-worker who is always bad-mouthing the Church. Or that friend who didn’t have her kids baptized. Or that son of yours who since he went to College has stopped going to Church.
Oh, you think about them a little bit once in a while, but you quickly put them out of your mind, supposing you should say something to them, but what good would it do? And God will understand. He is, after all, all merciful?
Yes. But you know as well as I do that God is also all just. And that those who reject him, ignore him or walk away from his Church risk nothing less than the fires of hell, the terrible, eternal aloneness of being away from God.
And they wait for us at the margins of our lives. They wait for us to talk about Jesus and about how prayer is the only thing that gets you through some days. They wait for us to tell them about the Church and how without the Sacraments, without hearing Christ tell me I am forgiven and without eating his Body and Blood life is barely imaginable. They wait for us to lead them out from hellish prisons whose walls are built of the endless pursuit of the next momentary pleasure and whose bars are forged of selfishness and fear.
For they are the truly poor of Worcester: the guy who’s replaced prayer with self-indulgence, going to Church with another drink, the hard work of fifty years of marriage and sacrifice with a series of empty hook-ups and dead ends. Or the woman whose first love walked away and now seeks something, anything to fill up the empty hole he left in her gut…she thought the kids would do it, or one of the last three guys or even the pills. But now she’s left empty and alone. Or the really successful broker who looks to all the world like he’s got it all, but who sometimes wakes up in a cold sweat, as everything around him dies and he’s fearful he’ll be left alone.
They wait for you, to give them the great good news that only one thing really matters: Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the living God, the one through whom all things were made, and the one who invites me to join my sufferings with his cross, my desires with his will, and the aching pain in my chest with his Sacred Heart.
They wait for you at the margins of your life.
As they waited for Saint Francis Xavier. In the last days of his life, he wrote a letter about the dangers he and his companions would face as they departed for China to begin a new mission. The first danger was that the captain would throw them overboard or abandon them on a desert island. The second very real danger was that the King of China would have them tortured and killed on sight but there is a still greater danger for the missionary, he wrote in these words:
“[The real danger is ]…to cease to hope and trust in the mercy of God… So we must strengthen ourselves with the Lord’s words: "He that loves his life in this world will lose it, and he who loses it for the sake of God will find it," [and] "He who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is not fit for the kingdom of God.”
Remembering that these dangers to the soul are much greater than those of the body, we find that it easier to pass through bodily dangers than to be caught in spiritual dangers before God. We are consequently determined to go to China by any way whatever. I hope in God our Lord that the outcome of our voyage will be to the increase of our holy faith, no matter how much the enemies and their ministers persecute us, since "if God is for us, who can be against us?”
Xavier never made it to China. But he tried.
And God calls us to do the same.