Culture

Father Tom and the Full Christian Witness

Father Thomas Uzhunnalil meets with Pope Francis at the Vatican, September 13, 2017. (Osservatore Romano/Handout via Reuters)
Martyrs and mentors live among us.

Three trees were planted on a concrete island in the 1990s, in what seems like the busiest intersection in London. At first, when my Uber driver dropped me off a few blocks down, I thought it had to be some kind of mistake. Across the street from Hyde Park is Tyburn Convent, home to the Benedictine Adorers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus of Montmartre, who pray 24 hours a day on the spot where the blood of martyrs spilled. The spot, in truth, is the neighborhood where Catholics — some of them priests or those who tried to protect them — were executed during and after the Reformation. The martyrs are in many ways a shocking contrast to the bustle around them, especially at rush hour, amid a new luxury high-rise being built. Their lives and the memorial on the intersection are reminders of the fragility of the gift of freedom — and the great gift it is when it is given for God and others, a selflessness that stands as a witness to the most radical generosity.

One of the many unmistakable things there when I visited two weeks ago was the memorial to modern-day martyrs, with a prominent picture of Father Tom Uzhunnalil, a Salesian missionary from India. As you may recall or may have heard by now, he was taken captive after terrorists murdered 16 people in March 2016, including four sisters with the Missionaries of Charity — the order founded by Mother Teresa. After his capture, people — from the Tyburn nuns to individuals across the globe — prayed for Father Tom, people who believe in the power of prayer. As you might expect, he is a believer in this, too.

What that looks like is the missionary kissing the feet of Pope Francis the day after his release on September 12. Throughout his captivity, he told the pope, he offered his suffering for the pope’s mission and for the Church. When he greeted the pontiff, he knelt and kissed his feet in gratitude for a people united in prayer, even in the middle of all kind of controversies. He couldn’t celebrate Mass during his captivity. But he said that “every day inside, in my heart, I repeated the words of the celebration,” and that “truly, every day I felt Jesus next to me, I always knew and felt in my heart that I was not alone.” The pope was moved to tears by such an act of humility and faith in the brotherhood among men and bond among Christians and the successor of Peter.

Around the time of Father Tom’s release, which is being credited to the work of the government of Oman and the Holy See, the country singer Don Williams died. There’s a world of difference in these headlines, of course. And yet there isn’t. Like the commuters zipping past my three memorial trees outside Tyburn Convent, the nuns who’ve given themselves over to a mysterious way of life, and a missionary who chose to suffer joyfully, we each make our choices every day. For years, I’ve on-and-off woken up to Don Williams singing, “Lord, I hope this day is good.”

Like many country songs, it speaks about real life. The truth of the matter is that we have more power than we realize to control whether it will be a good day. Sometimes by just voicing the hope, we immediately change the way things look, for ourselves and for all those we’ll encounter in a given day — even in captivity, as Father Tom testified to. The Tyburn nuns, meanwhile, are silent witnesses to the role of the supernatural in the world and to the history that might otherwise get forgotten to our busy world.

Two blocks from the White House on a recent weeknight, a family from Louisiana stopped by the Catholic Information Center in an event co-sponsored by the National Review Institute. They wanted to talk about the ministry they run, Witness to Love, which has helped people of all faith and of no faith. The older children watched Disney’s Cars while the adults talked about the power every family has to change lives by opening their homes and welcoming people. The program, born of the wise request of a parish priest, mentors people about marriage. Couples come to churches all the time for wedding ceremonies, and this can be a tremendous opportunity — possibly to get the couple more involved in the church, including its charitable service. But the program can also connect a new couple to one that has been on a virtuous path for five years of marriage or longer, and the older couple can invite the newlyweds to learn a bit about what a happy marriage can look like, including its encounters with human weakness along the way. Churches that have adopted the model — connecting engaged couples with mentors of their choosing — have seen divorces reduced.

We have more power than we realize to control whether it will be a good day.

We can read headlines about scandal and controversy over marriage, or we can do something to combat the trend in community. And so, Mary-Rose and Ryan Verret, the founders of Witness to Love, do the latter and bear witness to the reality that we all have much more power in the day-to-day than we often realize — when we choose to hope and not be terrorized by our history, captors, or the bombardment of bad news.

READ MORE:

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— Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review. Sign up for her weekly NRI newsletter here. This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.

 

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