Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
May the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ sustain you! It was a great mercy for me to be able to attend the Midwest March for Life in Des Moines on Jan. 16. So many people attended, and I was warmed – in spite of the very cold day – to see so much prayerful, peaceful, enthusiastic support for the gift of life. We were conscious of being part of a great movement, expressing our charity and solidarity with all the most vulnerable among us, marching now in dozens of cities across the country. Many of our parishioners from Iowa have also travelled to Washington, D.C., to march in the national March for Life on Jan. 22. Such witness is powerful, and we will, one day soon, defeat abortion and every threat to life.
But our witness is not limited to being present for major events, or to what gets noticed by the news or by social media. Far more powerful is the witness, the testimony, of how we live every day. We are always giving witness to something, always demonstrating by our choices what rules our hearts, where our treasure is hidden. At any moment, either we are giving that witness to Christ, our eternal treasure ruling in our hearts with his infinite love and mercy, or to sinful pride.
Most of us, of course, give rather mixed messages in our testimony. We follow Christ sometimes, and we also follow the world sometimes. We accept his perfect will in some things, but choose our own desires in other things. We pay attention only in the most important moments, and if we make a deliberate effort at knowing and following God’s will for us once or twice in our life, we count ourselves very blessed! This state of contradiction is a consequence of original sin, and it is so normal for us that we mostly don’t even realize how strange it is.
But we would certainly notice if any of our cultural heroes gave such inconstant testimony. If an actor vacillated on screen between expressiveness and woodenness, we would notice, and not admire them. If a sports star varied from week to week between focused game-day preparations, and gorging on donuts, we would notice, and not admire them. The refusal to maintain a constant program of achieving success in their chosen fields would clearly proclaim to us their lack of true desire to reach their goals.
Isn’t this too often the state of our own spiritual life? We are deliberate about our love for God and the church only in fits and starts, like unprofitable servants (see Lk 17:5-10). The rest of the time, we drift in the broad, lazy current of the world, not daring to recognize or speak against the evils which surround us (see Mt 7:13). When we give this inconstant sort of testimony, the world notices, and does not admire us.
So, how shall we develop a better spiritual program to follow? How shall we give more consistent witness to our Savior? Lent is only two weeks away, so it’s not too early to ask these questions. The program of Lent – daily prayer, fasting and abstinence, the spiritual sacrifice of giving something up, an extra effort at almsgiving – is the foundation of every successful spiritual program, which makes us better disciples of Christ. There’s also the element of joy, the Paschal joy that we’re preparing for and the joy of participating with Christ in the works of our salvation. This too is part of Lent, and of Easter. For the disciple who strives to be constant, it is, in a sense, always Lent, for that disciple is always following the spiritual program, and it’s always Easter, for that disciple is always joyfully aware of being one with the risen Christ.
The world does not want us to be better disciples, but to continue on the broad and easy road that leads to destruction. That’s one reason, for example, that the amazing demonstrations of the March for Life in so many locations get so little media coverage.
But it’s also true that being better disciples of Christ is not easy, though the basics of a good spiritual program are simple. We struggle, not just against the outside temptations of going along to get along, but also against the inner demons of pride, sloth, complacency, and despair.
Being a good disciple, and giving a consistent witness to Christ, is hard work. It is essential, therefore, to cling above all to mercy and hope. Hope keeps us going when the way is difficult, when we lose motivation, when we feel that it makes no difference whether we try to be better disciples or not. Hope spurs us to the effort regardless.
And mercy lightens and smoothes the way. Mercy lifts the burden of sin and guilt off our shoulders, so that we can stand up again and see how far we have come on the road to heaven. Mercy calls us by name and doesn’t let us give up along the way. And we cling to mercy and hope, most especially, in the sacraments of healing.
In these weeks before Lent, in the cold and dark of winter, I urge you, be willing to hear the voice of Christ calling you to a deeper and more beautiful relationship with him. Consider what your program for Lent will be, and how you can be a better disciple this year, growing in faith and holiness. Above all, pray for a real encounter with his mercy, to heal you! I pray for all of you constantly.
Your brother in Christ,
Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless,
Bishop of Sioux City
P.S. How about those Broncos? They just have to win one more!