Sunday, August 21, 2011

Standing Alone for Christ

Leah Darrow

(Twenty-first Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on August 21, 2011 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Matthew 16: 13-20.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-first Sunday 2011]

Thirty-one-year-old Leah Darrow was the Friday night speaker at this year’s Steubenville East Youth Conference, which was held at URI on the weekend of July 24th. Leah has become a well-known and highly-respected chastity speaker in recent years, but before that her big claim to fame was that she was a contestant on “America’s Next Top Model”. She was on during Cycle 3 of the series, which aired back in 2004.

When she gave her personal testimony during the conference, she said that she grew up on a farm in Oklahoma, the oldest of six children. Her family practiced the faith: they all went to Sunday Mass; they even prayed a Rosary together every evening. However during her teenage years Leah began to drift spiritually. She experienced what she now describes as a “slow fade” away from her Catholic faith: she got a new circle of friends who were not the best influence on her (that happens to a lot of teens—even some teens here in our community), and she eventually embraced a very hedonistic, materialistic, self-centered lifestyle.

In the midst of all this she began to do some modeling, and after she graduated college she decided on a whim to try out for the so-called “reality show,” “America’s Next Top Model.” I say “so-called” because—as Leah said during her testimony—“there’s nothing real about reality TV”! So often, as most of us know, they film scenes of conflict between the contestants on these shows. But, as Leah noted in her talk, most of the time the producers and directors of the programs create the circumstances that contribute to the conflict. (That’s the part they don’t tell you.) For example, Leah said that she and the other contestants had no privacy whatsoever when they were competing. In fact, the producers took all the doors off the hinges in the hotel where they were staying—and that includes the door to the bathroom! Consequently, these young women had men (that is to say, male persons) following them around with cameras 24 hours a day. Literally 24 hours a day! They also didn’t give the contestants enough food or enough rest.

So I ask you: Would you or would you not be a little bit edgy if you were hungry and sleep-deprived and living in a hotel with a bunch of strangers—a hotel in which you had absolutely no privacy and no time for yourself?

The answer should be obvious.

Leah was eventually eliminated from “America’s Next Top Model,” but her appearance on the program opened the doors to a number of big modeling jobs. Of course the interesting thing is that during this part of her life she really wasn’t happy. She had a measure of fame and notoriety, she was making a good bit of money, she had physical relationships with a number of different men—but she had no peace.

Finally it all came to a crisis point during a big photo shoot that she did in New York City for an international magazine. She had been asked to wear a very skimpy, immodest outfit—more revealing than anything she had ever modeled before. She said that she felt “uncomfortable—scared—exposed” and she suddenly came to the realization that she had been squandering the gifts God had given her. She said that she had a “St. Paul moment” in which she imagined herself standing before Almighty God at the end of her life, wearing the outfit she had worn in the photo shoot, with her hands—her cupped hands—out in front of her, as if she was offering what was in them to God. The problem was that her hands were EMPTY, symbolic of the fact that she had nothing good to offer to God, based on the way she had been living her life in recent years: no acts of love, no acts of selfless charity—nothing.

It was a graced moment; and in that graced moment she said (and here I quote): “I knew I had to change—not because I had to, but because I wanted to.”

And so she said to the photographer and the crew, “I can’t do this anymore” (referring not just to the photo shoot, but to the whole lifestyle). They responded with several threats, and several choice words. The photographer said, “If you walk out of here, if you don’t finish this, you will be a nobody. You will never work here again.”

They didn’t realize it, but Leah was happy to hear that! And so, when she got to the door, she turned the handle, looked back and said, “Do you promise? Do you promise that I’ll be a nobody? That’s great. I want to be a nobody to this, because I want to be somebody to Christ.”

And she walked out.

She cried all the way back to her apartment, called her dad immediately and said to him, “Daddy if you don’t come and get me I’m going to lose my soul.”

So her dad came. He got into his car, drove all the way from St. Louis to New York, encouraged his daughter to make a good confession, and then actually took her to church so she could meet with a local priest and receive the sacrament.

The rest, as they say, is history. Leah got her life together, renewed her faith, got reconnected to the Church, and has since become a very effective speaker at conferences like the one our teenagers attended at URI a couple of weeks ago.

She’s now doing some great things for the Lord. But it all started at that decisive moment when she was willing to stand apart and stand alone for Jesus Christ! That’s the key point to remember, and it’s why I shared her story today in this homily. Think about it. If Leah Darrow had not been willing to confront that photographer during that photo shoot and walk out the door, she would still have ‘empty hands’ at the present time, she would still be miserable—more miserable than ever—and her life would be going in a completely different direction.

Leah’s story popped into my mind as I read today’s gospel reading and thought about Peter’s confession of faith. As we heard a few moments ago, at Caesarea Philippi that day Jesus asked his disciples a question—a crucial question—a decisive question: “Who do you say that I am?”

I say this question was crucial and decisive because the answer they gave would determine a lot of things: It would determine their level of loyalty to Jesus; it would determine their willingness to listen to Jesus and obey him; it would determine their willingness to follow Jesus when things got tough.

You see, if they thought that Jesus was just a great teacher or just a great philosopher, they could justify disobeying him or disagreeing with his “opinions” or walking away from him when things got difficult.

But if he was something more—if he was the Messiah who had a special and unique relationship with the heavenly Father—then they couldn’t justify any of those things! They would have to be loyal to Jesus and listen to Jesus and obey Jesus and follow Jesus no matter what!

Well, we all know what happened. Peter stepped forward and boldly declared what he believed. Like Leah Darrow, he stood apart and stood alone for the Lord. He said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Now perhaps the other apostles—or at least some of the other apostles—were thinking the same thing. Perhaps some of them had the very same belief about Jesus.

But we don’t know that for sure. In fact, I think it’s much more likely that the other 11 did NOT believe what Peter believed—at least not fully. I say that because, according to Matthew, Mark and Luke (the 3 gospel writers who record this event for us), none of the other apostles said anything after Peter made his profession of faith. They were totally and completely silent. Which leads to the obvious question: If they did believe the same thing about Jesus that Peter believed, then why didn’t they speak up immediately after Peter did? Why didn’t they all say, “Yes, Jesus, Peter’s right. We agree. You are the Messiah, the Son of God!”?

Their silence, I think, says a lot.

To his great credit, Peter was not influenced by whatever hesitancy or doubts his fellow apostles were experiencing. He believed Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of God—and he said it!

And his willingness to step out in faith and lead his fellow apostles was still rewarded by our Lord, who made him, in effect, the very first pope: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.”

Standing up for Jesus Christ and his truth ALWAYS has its reward: sometimes in this life, always in eternity—and sometimes both here and in the hereafter (as was the case for Peter).

For Leah Darrow, the reward is coming as she sees the lives of young people—and not-so-young people—change for the better through the talks she gives in settings like the Steubenville East Youth Conference.

We live right now in a society where anti-Catholicism is rampant. I’m sure that’s not news to anyone here. As someone once said, “Anti-Catholicism is the last respectable prejudice left in America.”

When you face those attacks at work or at school—or even in your own family—do you respond like Peter and Leah Darrow? Or do you remain silent?

That’s the key question of the day for all of us.

To those who of you who do respond in defense of Christ and his Church—to those of you who stand up and affirm your faith like Peter and Leah Darrow—let me give this word of encouragement: When your life is over and all is said and done, you’ll be very glad you did.