The other day I opened the paper (or rather clicked on my phone) to check the headlines, and I instantly regretted it. From top to bottom, every single story was bad news: multiple incidents of gun violence, ongoing pandemic outbreaks, natural disasters, bickering politicians.
Even a recap of the Jersey Shore’s summer season was bleak, marred by discontent over rowdy teens, trash, long lines and flies — all of which oddly made me feel a bit better about failing to visit my home state’s beaches over the past few months.
Among Catholics, the wire is often not much more encouraging. Faithful are sniping and snapping at one another on social media, while too many are predicting that — after decades of declining Mass attendance — COVID and factionalism will conspire to slay the Bride of Christ, plunging the world into a godless abyss from which it cannot be redeemed.
Without in any way minimizing the very real anguish caused by the equally real challenges we’re facing, I would submit that we may want to look for guidance from a few predecessors who viewed daunting circumstances from a quite different perspective — one based not on human initiative, but on the divine redemption won for us by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
About 75 years ago, Peggy and Christine Smith — two elderly sisters respectively beset by blindness and arthritis — looked around their remote Scottish village and, despite the rugged beauty of the view, saw dark clouds that threatened.
As the Free Church Presbytery of Lewis, the island on which they resided, noted in a public declaration, Christianity there was in a “low state of vital religion.” Along with “chaotic conditions of international politics and domestic economics and morality,” the people lacked “spiritual power from Gospel Ordinances.” The pews were empty from a “growing carelessness toward Sabbath observance,” and so lightly were oaths and vows broken that the sacraments themselves, especially baptism, were “in too many cases an offense to God rather than a means of grace.”
The prognosis was indeed grim for the island — part of an archipelago known as the Hebrides, located off Scotland’s west coast — since a “spirit of pleasure” had taken “such a hold of the younger generation that all regard for anything higher (appeared) with very few exceptions to have been utterly dismissed from their thoughts.”
And all this was, mind you, after not one but two World Wars, cosmic-level conflicts one would have expected to send any reasonable person running to the altar to plead for the Almighty’s aid.
Amid the grave pronunciation that “these things plainly indicate that the Most High has a controversy with the nation,” Peggy and Christine, though physically unable to attend church, calmly folded their hands, bent their heads and prayed.
Their prayers were heard — and answered, gloriously.
As they interceded day after day, night after night, the sisters felt led to contact their local pastor, who in turn enlisted other parishioners in the prayer effort. Soul by soul, congregation by congregation, a renewal spread over the island, one that would come to be known as the Hebridean Revival.
After visiting Lewis, Presbyterian minister Duncan Campbell recounted that “while a brother prayed, the very house shook.” He himself “could only stand in silence as wave after wave of divine power swept through the house, and in a matter of minutes following this heaven-sent visitation, men and women were on their faces in distress of soul,” repenting and asking God to reshape their hearts.
Instead of carousing at the pub, said one youth, “the prayer meeting … and the worship of God in his house on the Sabbath” became the “chief delight” of the islander’s young residents.
And while every revival, and indeed Christ’s reign itself, faces continual attack from the enemy “until everything is subject to Christ” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 671), the call to seek the Lord remains constant, as Pope Francis reminds us: “I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day” (Evangelii Gaudium, 3).
The world’s datelines are always scooped by the Good News of the Gospel: “Whenever we take a step towards Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms. … With a tenderness which never disappoints, but is always capable of restoring our joy, he makes it possible for us to lift up our heads and to start anew” (Evangelii Gaudium, 3).
We can write a fresh story worth telling if we’re willing to follow the example of a few older ladies, long passed into eternity, who humbled themselves before the Lord that he might exalt them (Jas 4:10) — and the rest of us as well.
Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com, host of the Inside CatholicPhilly.com podcast and author of the forthcoming book “Stations of the Cross for Sexual Abuse Survivors.” Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.
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