Matthew 15:1-2, 10-14, Feast of St Jean-Marie Vianney
A couple of days ago, a word war started trending on twitter involving AOC and Damien of Molokai. @AOC refers to the initials of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who, at the age of 29, was the youngest woman ever to be elected into the US congress back in 2018. Damien of Molokai, on the other hand, refers to Fr Damien, a Belgian priest who was canonized a saint in 2009 due to his being deemed a martyr of charity, having dedicated his life to ministering to lepers in the Kalaupapa peninsula of Molokai in Hawaii.
Without going into the details of this controversy, simply put, AOC offered the critique that statues found in the national statuary hall collection in the US Capitol were mostly of white men. AOC noted that Hawaii’s statue was that of Fr. Damien and asked, why was not it that of Queen Liliuokalani, the only queen regnant of Hawaii?
There was an immediate backlash from both conservative and liberal Catholics alike – including the fiery auxiliary bishop of the Los Angeles Archdiocese, Robert Barron – who defended – rightly so – the life of Fr Damien. And so mainstream and social media pitted these two figures against each other – sharply drawing lines and boundaries; one from the past and one from the present; a man belonging to a white and dominantly male hierarchical church; and a woman belonging to an ethnic minority and challenging the traditional pecking order of power. Others even dared to frame the battle along the lines of a ‘man of faith’ and a ‘woman of courage’. A frame, which for purposes of taking a different perspective and an interesting take into tonight’s Gospel reading, seems apt to appropriate as a lens. Faith and Courage.
For indeed the themes of faith and courage seem to resonate in the story of Jesus walking on water; of Peter being saved from sinking into the depths of the sea. Tossed about in their boat by high winds and rough waves, it must have been indeed a terrifying sight for the disciples to see a figure emerging, walking towards them. “It is a ghost!” they cried out in fear. And Jesus, telling them, assuring them, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” Faith and Courage. Perhaps, in the context of the madness of the pandemic we live in, we find ourselves in a similar situation; we find ourselves in the same boat as the disciples. Tossed about by our fears and doubts, we still have to see how the narrative of this terrible, tragic pandemic will turn out. Especially when we see the madness of kings and puppets on full display; when we ourselves are overwhelmed by what is happening all around us; when in the confines of space and time, we start being tormented by our inner demons; and we begin seeing seeing ghosts and making an enemy of the other. Faith and Courage. For probably lost amidst all this noise is the voice of Jesus, gently reminding us “Take courage… take heart… these too will pass away…” And with full bravado on display, we, like Peter, may be tempted to articulate the “doubting Thomas” voice within us, “If it is you Lord, then allow me to walk on water as well.” If it is indeed you Lord, allow me a glimpse, give me an assurance that there will soon be an end to this pandemic as well. That a vaccine will soon be found. That the killings will stop. That kindness and respect will prevail in the hearts of our leaders in government; that service will be promoted for the common good; and the protection of the poor and hungry will be the common ground in the debate between public health and economy. Faith and Courage. But like Peter, when we see how strong the winds are, we will surely doubt and falter; we will surely fear and sink. And in that moment, perhaps like Peter, we too will cry out, “Save us, Lord”. And hopefully, in that split second of doubt, may we realize that it is indeed possible to be saved. For if we still doubt that, then today’s feast reminds us that it is possible. For as we celebrate the life of St Jean-Marie Vianney, a man of faith, a priest of courage, we recall how he also lived through rough and tough times. Amidst the backdrop and residue of the French Revolution, we find this man of God being tested time and again. Whether struggling through his Latin subjects, or living through the growing pains of shifting from the monarchy to the republic; when amidst pain and suffering, the French people started doubting their church and their God, Jean-Marie Vianney must have been plagued by his doubts and fears. His faith and courage tested, time and again. And reflecting on his role as priest during those times of difficulty, he discerned his role as that of an apostle of mercy.
Faith and Courage. And during these uncertain, volatile, complex and ambiguous times, all the more do we need faith and courage. And we may be tempted to ask, does faith build courage? Or is it the other way around, that it is courage which builds up faith? And in taking our cue from St Jean-Marie Vianney, we can search for common ground between faith and courage. We can realize that faith and courage build on each other because of mercy. For if we can discern our simple role during this time of the pandemic, it is to preach and practice mercy. By treating each other with kindness and respect, we may yet embark on the journey to becoming true and credible witnesses of faith and courage.
Going back to the @AOC and Damien of Molokai controversy, it is interesting to note that both Ms Cortez and Fr Damien are/were passionate Catholics and staunch believers. In an article she wrote for America Magazine, AOC writes, “I remember reading my cousin Marc’s tattoo each time I saw it, trying to understand what it meant: Only God Can Judge Me. Innocence, in its mercy, partly excuses us from having to fully reckon with the spiritual gifts of forgiveness, grace and redemption at the heart of the Catechism: I believe in the forgiveness of sins.” In other words, an experience of God’s forgiveness, an experience of God’s mercy. For haven’t we all experienced God’s mercy at some point in our lives?
Faith and Courage. For like Peter, having been saved and now back safe in the boat; when the winds have died down and the boat now being rocked gently by calm serene waters, may we realize how God has been truly merciful. And surely when this pandemic is over – Inshallah… Kairos, in God’s time, Jesus would mildly chastise us and say, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
And most probably, whether in hubris or with rationalization, when we forget God’s mighty power in our lives, may we be reminded what is truly behind faith and courage – and as preached and practiced by Jean-Marie Vianney – is mercy. And through his intercession, may we become truly priests of faith and Jesuits of courage; becoming witnesses of mercy, shown not only in words, but more importantly, gradually unfolding in our lives.
*Image from the Internet