The Good Fruit of Barnabas and Katherine Drexel
by Father Pete Iorio
The movie Paul, Apostle of Christ does a good job of portraying early Christians who were living in fear during Paul’s imprisonment at the end of his life in Rome. I was particularly inspired by the contrast shown of differing groups of Christians, those young men who desired to take matters into their own hands by violent attack and those that followed Christ’s path of compassionate love that was exhibited especially to the Roman soldier and his daughter. Remaining on the vine of Christ (by showing compassionate love) bore very good fruit in my evaluation.
Faith in Jesus Christ invites us to reflect on our fears. What am I afraid of? The dark? My own security? People who are different from me? Are I afraid of making a mistake? Are I afraid of disappointing someone or failing? Maybe I am afraid of telling someone that I am a Catholic Christian because someone will criticize me and cut me down for my beliefs. This happens all the time on social media and in our public schools. Am I afraid of speaking up for people in need? It is not easy to be a follower of Christ in the world because people will oppose you and hate you and act against you. This is nothing new.
Flashback from the movie to the first reading today from the Acts of the Apostles. Years before Paul was imprisoned, Christians were afraid of Saul of Tarsus because he was killing Christians. That is a very good reason to be afraid of someone – a person who threatens your life for what you believe.
When they heard that he was going to visit them in Jerusalem, they were afraid because they did not trust him. Do you blame them? If you believe in Jesus Christ Risen from the dead and followed His way, would you invite a known persecutor of people like you into your home or community? I would be very fearful about doing that.
It was Barnabas who spoke up and sponsored him to the rest of the Christian community. Barnabas was not afraid to take a risk on this man Saul.
When people come into our lives, sometimes they come as sinners. Some come with terrible histories very much in need of redemption and restoration. There are many people like Saul and are hated or even just politely dismissed or cast away because they are not like us. We must take great care that we do not totally reject them because we judge them not to be worthy. We must have faith and courage to trust like Barnabas that every human life is worthy of God’s love and that we can be instruments of God’s grace.
Through God’s grace, Saul came to see what he was doing. Literally blinded, he came to see Christ as the source of life and love. God started the process of redemption in Saul, but Saul who became Paul needed to be part of a community of love and faith to complete his new growth. Saul had been good at his work of destroying Christians and the early community knew it and were rightly afraid of him. So, at first, they refused his company. They could not see past his reputation. Their fear of him and their anger with him threatened to keep him cut-off from the community and thus from Christ.
Thank God for Barnabas. Barnabas took a risk by bringing Saul into the community of believers. Barnabas was not afraid to take a risk on Saul. He trusted in God enough to think as God does and not as humans do. Barnabas put aside his own safety because the love of Christ is stronger than any fear or hatred. Because of Barnabas, Paul was able to be grafted more firmly to the vine of Christ. He grew and so did the community because of his participation in the community. Through the new and fervent faith of Paul, we now have his abundant words of life and love in the Scriptures: his letters are beautiful books of the New Testament.
Perfect love that only Christ can give casts out all fear. How can we live this type of fearless love in our world today? There’s a lot to be afraid of in our world today. It is easy to stay quiet and stay to ourselves. There is a temptation for Christians to be very self-focused and insular. This is a form of individualism.
The Risen Christ always tells faithful followers to go out and preach the Good News. Each Christian needs to have a missionary spirit… that is a willingness to go out of yourself trusting that Christ’s love is with you and working through you.
An attitude that says we need to take care of our own first is not the Gospel message. The message of Jesus is to take care of anyone who is in need right in front of us. We remember Matthew chapter 25 when Jesus said that as often as we do something or fail to do something for the very least of our brothers and sisters, we do something or fail to do it for Christ Himself. That is why Christians help our neighbors in need who have been caught up in the spiral of addiction That is why Christians help our neighbors in need who have an unwanted pregnancy. That is why Christians help our neighbors in need who have been separated from loved ones because of deportation. Those people in need are Christ to us and offer us an opportunity to love them. Christians take a risk to be advocates for the poor, whomever they are. We act in this way because the Love of Christ impels us and the love of Christ casts out fear of being opposed or mocked or even threatened with violence.
160 years ago, a rich Philadelphia heiress named Katherine Mary Drexel was born. As a young and wealthy woman, Drexel made her social debut in 1879. However, watching her stepmother’s three-year struggle with terminal cancer taught her the Drexel money could not buy safety from pain or death. Her life took a profound turn. She had always been interested in the plight of Native Americans, having been appalled by what she read in Helen Hunt Jackson’s A Century of Dishonor.
When her family traveled to the Western states in 1884, Katharine Drexel saw the plight and destitution of the Native Americans. She wanted to do something specific to help. Thus began her lifelong personal and financial support of numerous missions and missionaries in the United States. There were plenty of poor people in Philadelphia, but Katherine heard the call of the Lord to help these brothers and sisters in need. Her decision to enter religious life rocked Philadelphia social circles. The Philadelphia Public Ledger carried a banner headline: “Miss Drexel Enters a Catholic Convent—Gives Up Seven Million”.
Mother Katherine dedicated herself to work among the American Indians and African-Americans in the western and southwestern United States and established a religious congregation, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. How appropriate to remember them on this First Holy Communion weekend. She is a great example of a Christian who remained on the vine of Christ.
The message of the gospel to remain a branch on the vine of Jesus is to stay the course. We are to stay nourished and trust that we are going to be fruitful even if threats come to this vine. There is always a temptation to be afraid or to stay closed in on ourselves. It is that vine that dies and does not bear fruit.
Let us be a Barnabas and Katherine today not being afraid to take on the difficult mission of Christ to care for the neediest among us and also those far away. The abundance of God does not have limits to charity.