Feast of Saint Monica
I can’t say I have ever been inspired by images of saints contemplating a skull, but today’s readings do remind us of the benefit to pondering end times, or the coming of the Lord at the end of time. And over the years, I have far too often presided at the funeral of an adolescent; it is sobering to gaze upon the congregation of many classmates, at once feeling invincible — and now, fragile, even vulnerable.
So what does Jesus really mean when he thunders, “Stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come.” (Matt 24:42) In his Letter to the Thessalonians, Paul also prays that they be kept “blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones.” (1 Thess 3:13)
The admonition to pay attention or stay awake is not meant to intimidate or threaten, as if God were a vengeful tyrant, waiting to pounce upon us as a bird might when seizing its pray. Rather, it is the persistent care and “in-your-face” love of a parent, who refuses to abandon her child, much like Monica, whose feast we celebrate today.
How can we maintain a hopeful or even cheerful stance when statistics are bleak and weigh us down? Research from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate stirs me. In 1975 there were 369,133 marriages celebrated in this country; last year 154,450. The total number of priests has decreased from 58,398 to 38,275; the decline in religious sisters and brothers is even more dramatic. Catholics who attend Mass weekly has tumbled from 42% to 24%. We all know the percentages of “nones” (those who profess no religious identification or denomination); those who are disengaged from any mainline religion are in our families, they live next door, or share an office with us.
Yet how Christ-like the preaching of Pope Francis! He, too, calls us to wake up the world! Don’t get so bloated with comfort and convenience that you are anesthetized to the mystery of God-presence in the poor. Don’t become so stressed or anxious with overwork that you are numb to God’s love in the grandeur of creation, the beauty of nature. Don’t clutter your calendars and closets that you miss those moments when God is crashing in with favor and compassion.
Maybe skull-gazing isn’t so bad after all.
Father Jack Conley, C.P. is the director of the Office of Mission Effectiveness. He is a member of the Passionist formation community at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.