Charlotte, N.C. — There were women weeping in a chapel here. One woman named Veronica was nearly inconsolable. She was talking about the crucifixion of Christ as if it was happening right then and there. She was feeling it. She was seeing it as the consequences of her sins. She was overwhelmed by the love of a God who would bother so much to save humanity from the misery of sin and finality of death as to come into the world as a baby and to die such a brutal death.
Through their tears of joy in gratitude and sorrow for their — and all of our — sins, women were giving thanks to God for a successful three-day mission here at America’s largest Catholic parish, St. Matthew’s, led by a group of largely lay missionaries called Hard as Nails.
The mission — which is basically a retreat over a few days — came just weeks before the start of the 40-day penitential season of Lent that prepares hearts for the celebration of Easter, the Resurrection of Jesus. And this scene in the chapel just about captured it all. Their faith is real. Sometimes Christians don’t truly grapple with the power of that. Prayers do mean something if you’re talking about communicating with the Creator of the universe, sharing the deepest needs and desires of your hearts and the hearts of men and women around you — including people in desperate need who might even be a world away, when prayer is the only way you can give them immediate aid.
These women were particularly overwhelmed because Father Peter John Cameron, O.P. — a Dominican priest, well-respected writer and preacher who is the director of formation at Hard as Nails — brought around a monstrance with what Catholics believe is the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist on the third and final night of the mission. This was the closest some of them had ever been to that Eucharistic Presence; usually they adore from afar. And the nearness of their Lord and Savior consumed them with almost every emotion known to man.
Pew has found lately that many Catholics don’t believe in the Real Presence. That’s not entirely news to me — sometimes you can see it in how people approach the Mass or any tabernacle, in the casual way that we sometimes regard some of the Sacraments of the Church. But with an experience like the one at the mission that these women just had — along with 700 or so of their neighbors — that’s a matter of faith that is going to be difficult to take for granted anytime soon. Truly confronting the truth of what you profess to believe can be a radicalizing experience in a life, an opportunity for renewal, and gift to the world around you. When the Beatitudes become your oxygen, when works of mercy become your marching orders, you can’t just go through the motions of what you profess to believe.
Father Cameron and Justin Fatica (the founder of Hard as Nails) both preached over the course of the nights of the mission, with the theme coming from Matthew 15:25, where the Canaanite woman asks, “Lord, please help me.” She begs with everything that is in her. We live at a time of such anxiety and anger, and for a Christian, this is the most important plea we could ever make. We could afford to make begging in prayer a part of our culture. People might believe that we are really praying when tragedy strikes if we do so as a daily and even hourly part of our live — those of us who are religious believers. It could even become contagious. That beats the fear that seems to be legion in so much of the anxiety and anger and poisons in our cultural air.
Part of the goal of this mission here is at the heart of why Hard as Nails exists: to make sure no one suffers alone. And is there any doubt in the world that there is suffering everywhere in the world? Don’t you see it in your own life and in the life of your family and so many who are a part of your days? So what can we do to make sure that no one carries his burdens alone?
I first got to know Hard as Nails when I spent time with them at the commissioning of their most recent round of twentysomething lay missionaries at the Shrine of the North American Martyrs in Auriesville, N.Y. And interacting with them since, what has become clear to me is that their love for the Gospel could set our country ablaze with the kind of holy boldness and blazing charity that Saint Catherine of Siena used to implore and model. There’s both an urgency and peace about Hard as Nails’s founder, Justin Fatica. The urgency is the kind of restlessness Saint Augustine wrote about — our hearts are restless until they rest in thee, God — and it’s also a keen sensitivity to the suffering that people experience in their lives, all around us.
Which brings us back to the women in the chapel. Their faith is not abstract to them. Their faith is not a safe harbor in a storm. Their faith is the reality of a God who intervenes in the world, who is all good. Their lives have meaning because they were made by and for a loving God. And knowledge of that changes everything. The mission of the people who experience an encounter with Jesus is to share that love with everyone they meet. Wouldn’t that be something if all Christians did? Wouldn’t that change things?