Friday, February 03, 2006

The Big Difference Between Job And Monsignor Aloysius Schwartz

Monsignor Aloysius Schwartz in the missions.

(Fifth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on February 5, 2006, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Job 7: 1-4, 6-7.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fifth Sunday of the Year 2006]

The title of this homily is: “The Big Difference Between Job And Monsignor Aloysius Schwartz.”

I know—it’s not the most “catchy” title in the world, but it's accurate nonetheless.

Most of us, I’m sure, know the story of Job. The Bible tells us that he was a deeply religious man, “who feared God and avoided evil”. He was also quite wealthy. And for many years he led a very happy life; that is, until the day when he literally lost everything! First, his herds and flocks were either destroyed or stolen; then his ten children died when a house collapsed on them during a severe windstorm; and, finally, he was afflicted with a terrible disease that left his entire body covered with painful boils.

At that point, along came Mrs. Job, who took one look at her husband and said to him, “Are you still holding to your innocence? Curse God and die.” (Obviously, Mrs. Job never received the “Wife of the Year Award”!)

Then three of his closest friends came on the scene “to give him sympathy and comfort.” However, all they ended up giving him was a lot of bad advice, more aggravation—and probably a really big headache (which was the last thing the poor guy needed at the time!).

In the midst of all this intense suffering, Job uttered the famous words we heard in today’s first reading: “Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery? Are not his days those of a hireling? He is a slave who longs for the shade, a hireling who waits for his wages. So I have been assigned months of misery, and troubled nights have been allotted to me. . . . My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle; they come to an end without hope. Remember that my life is like the wind; I shall not see happiness again.”

What’s important to note in this context is that Job had faith in God—always! Even at his worst moments—even in the midst of all the pain and suffering he experienced—he still believed in the Lord. And yet, as this passage I just read vividly illustrates, that was not enough to give him any real peace or hope! If it had been enough, he certainly wouldn’t have called life “a drudgery,” and been so close to despair.

Most of us, as I said earlier, know at least the basic outline of the story of Job. But, if I had to venture a guess, I would say that few (if any) of us know the story of the other man I mentioned at the beginning of my homily, Monsignor Aloysius Schwartz.

In fact, most of us have probably never even heard of him.

He was born in Washington, D.C., in 1930, and was ordained a priest in 1957. Until 1992 (the year he died), he served as a missionary—mostly in South Korea and the Philippines. Among his many accomplishments in the missions were the following: he founded two religious orders—one of women and the other of men—to work with the poorest of the poor; he established “Children’s Villages” to provide care and educational opportunities for orphans and those abandoned by their families; he started hospices for the homeless and the handicapped; he was even deeply involved in pro-life work. And, in the process, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize twice (in 1984 and 1992).

Monsignor Schwartz was a powerful witness for Jesus during the years he served God in good health as a priest. (That should be obvious from the brief resume I just shared with you.) But he was just as powerful a witness at the very end of his life, after he was diagnosed with ALS. ALS, of course, is the sickness commonly referred to as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.” It’s a fatal, neuromuscular disorder, in which a person’s voluntary muscles become weaker and weaker over time, until they finally become immobile. But the person’s intellect and senses are often unaffected by the illness—which means that the person enters into his suffering with a complete awareness of what is happening!

From a purely human perspective, that’s a scary thought!

About a year ago, I came across a brief but powerful meditation that Monsignor Schwartz either wrote or dictated at some point during his final months on earth. As I share it with you now, please keep in mind that this was composed by a man who was in the process of experiencing a long, drawn-out, horrific death. I think you’ll agree that the good monsignor definitely had faith in God—as Job did. But there was something else that he possessed, that Job did not have.

He wrote:

“I believe that for those whom God loves he makes all things work for their good. I believe that God loves me with an everlasting love. He loves me more than I love myself. He loves me to such an extent that he sends his only Son, Jesus Christ, as a living sacrifice to redeem me. He loves me so much that he sends anew each day his Son, Jesus Christ, as my food and drink in the Eucharist.

“So, I believe that ALS is sent to me as a sign of God’s love and it is given to me for my own good and happiness. The object of faith is not what is seen but what is not seen. Who can grasp the designs of God? Who can understand his wisdom? ‘My ways are above your ways, as the heavens are above the earth and my thoughts are different from your thoughts,’ says the Lord. No, I do not understand with my reason and intellect why this should be so, but I believe he has sent me ALS as a sign of his love and special favor. I believe this and I try to renew this belief at each instant. So it is, I do not look at ALS as an enemy which I fight. I accept it, embrace it, and welcome it as a friend.

“I believe in the words of St. Paul that God is faithful and he does not permit us to be tried beyond our strength. With every trial he gives us the strength to endure it and he shows us the way to overcome it. I believe God gives me this pain and suffering. I believe at the same time he gives me the strength and grace to accept it, endure it, and cope with it . . . I believe the grace of Jesus will always be adequate. The problem is, I would like it to be more than adequate. But it is enough, just enough, for that moment, and that instant. As Jesus on the cross, I do not look back. I do not consider the future but I trust God. I believe in his grace from instant to instant.”

Job had faith in God, and so did Monsignor Schwartz. But the good monsignor understood God on a much deeper level than Job did, because he knew Jesus—the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity who had redeemed him and had given him the hope of eternal life. No, he didn’t understand everything, as he himself admits there—but he definitely understood an awful lot! He understood, for example, the power and the meaning of the cross of Jesus Christ, and how all of that applied to him in his terminal illness. He understood the writings of St. Paul, and the truths contained in those writings. Consequently, he had a strength and a hope in his heart that Job did not have in his.

Today you often hear people say, “It doesn’t really matter what religion you profess, because all of them are pretty much the same. They teach the same basic ideas; they have the same basic moral principles.”

Have you heard that before? I have—many times!

Can you imagine how Monsignor Schwartz would have responded to a statement like that? Based on what he wrote in this little meditation, I’m convinced he would have said something like this: “My friend, you are sadly mistaken. All religions are not created equal. Other religions may teach certain aspects of the truth, but only Catholic Christianity teaches God’s revealed truth in its fullness. And because I believe it—because I believe all that the Church teaches and meditate on that truth daily—I have a power and a peace and a hope in my life right now that other people in my situation do not have.”

Job had faith, and that was good; Monsignor Aloysius Schwartz had faith and understanding, and that was even better.

As Catholics, we all have the potential to be like Monsignor Schwartz—which is very good news! We’re not like Job, who lived many centuries before Christ. We have Jesus; we have the New Testament; we have the teachings of the Church; we have the sacraments; and we have the example and writings of holy people like this faithful monsignor. Thus we have the potential to understand God as deeply as he understood him, and to experience the same power and peace that he experienced, in the midst of our own personal trials and sufferings.

Let’s pray at this Mass that, by the grace of God, we will all come to realize our potential.