Dear Members of the Fordham Community,
Peace of Christ.
I remember Sunday, the sixth of April 1969, as if it were yesterday. I was a second-year novice at Saint Andrew-on-Hudson in Poughkeepsie. It was a spectacular spring day in the Hudson Valley, and the grounds were at their best. The trees were almost in full leaf. The daffodils and tulips were out. The forsythia and azaleas were riots of color. The lilac bushes behind the house were drooping under the weight of their blooms. And a deranged woodpecker was busy hammering away at the metal cross on top of the domestic chapel in the quadrangle.
Wakened at the crack of dawn by the woodpecker’s drumming, I hopped out of bed and headed down to the kitchen to make breakfast for the 120 Jesuits in the Novitiate community. (Another novice did the cooking. I just cracked eggs and washed the pots, pans, and dishes. In other words, no one got sick.) Since we had already been working together in the kitchen for three weeks, the two of us were able to do our work in almost complete silence. When we had finished up, we parted in silence while the rest of the community ate a first-class feast: steak-and-eggs breakfast in the refectory. Lest you get the impression that that was our usual Sunday morning fare, I should tell you that it was not. Steaks and eggs were served only on the great feasts of the year. And this was the greatest of all feasts: it was Easter Sunday.
That Easter Sunday was, however, not just any Easter Sunday for me. It was also the first day of the fourth and final week of my first Long Retreat, the 30-day silent journey of prayer and reflection laid out in the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius. (And yes, I was keeping count: 25 days down, five more to go.)
After a quick solitary walk on the grounds, I returned to my room, picked up my copy of the Exercises, and got ready to pray. When I opened the Exercises, I expected to find myself directed to one of the Resurrection accounts in the Gospels. I was thrown for a loop, however, when I saw what Saint Ignatius presented for my consideration. He did not direct me to the scene at the empty tomb, nor to the Lord’s encounter with Mary Magdalene in the garden, nor to His appearance to the apostles in the Upper Room, nor to His conversation with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, and not to His preparing breakfast for the apostles on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. No. No. None of those. Rather, what he put before me was Jesus’ appearance to His mother on Easter morning.
I stared at the text. I scratched my head. I didn’t remember ever reading that story before. Now I know what you’re thinking. That since I was a Catholic, I was probably not all that familiar with the scriptures. Point well taken. But I had spent the better part of two years in the Jesuits. I had taken a course in the New Testament. And I still could not recall ever seeing this particular Easter story. So, I pulled my Bible from the bookshelf to see if I had somehow missed it. Matthew was silent. Mark was mum. Luke had nothing to say about it. Surely, I thought, John will come through. He didn’t. I was perplexed. Then I saw at the top of the page: “The Apparition of Christ our Lord to Our Lady #299,” a reference to the list of the events in the life of Christ that Ignatius had placed at the end of the Exercises. I rifled through the pages and came to #299 where I found this terse statement: “He appeared to the Virgin Mary; and although this is not mentioned in Scripture, still it is considered as mentioned when it says that He appeared to so many others, for the Scripture supposes us to have understanding as it is written: ‘Are you also without understanding?'” (a reference to a statement Jesus made to St. Peter in Matthew 15: 16). I smiled. Actually, I think I chuckled. That clever Ignatius!
As you might imagine, I did not want to be counted among those without understanding. Therefore, with that gentle swat from Ignatius, I went back to his outline for the prayer on this event-not-recorded-in-
I saw in my mind’s eye (and continue to see in my mind’s eye every time I pray over this mystery), Mary sitting alone mourning the death of her only Son. I imagined her doing what all mothers who have lost a child do. That is to say, I imagined her looking back at and dwelling lovingly on the rich memories that she had of His life: His birth in the poverty of a stable, the presentation in the Temple, finding Him among the teachers in the Temple, His upbringing in Nazareth, His sassy comment to her at the wedding feast at Cana, and, of course, the awful events of Holy Week. I could see her (loving mother that she was) rocking back and forth, softly humming some lullabies from long ago as she grieved for her son.
I could also imagine Jesus watching her silently from a distance, overcome with sorrow for all that she had gone through. And then gently calling to her. Walking to her and standing before her. I could imagine her disbelief. I could imagine her desire to make sure her eyes, heart, and mind were not playing tricks on her. I could imagine her doing what any mother would do to get the proof that she needed before she would believe what she was seeing and hearing. Touch. Touch is the basis of proof. Therefore, I imagined her touching His face. Tentatively at first. Then becoming bolder and caressing His face. Tenderly as a mother would do. Then, calling Him by name (or by the pet name that she had for him—surely the latter rather than the former). Consoled by the sure knowledge that her Son was alive, I could see and hear her returning to full maternal mode. That is to say, I could hear her berating Him lovingly for leaving her alone. And then, I saw Mother and Son falling into a long embrace.
And this, my brothers and sisters, is the way that Easter of 1969 began for me. To tell you the truth, it is an Easter that I have (clearly) never forgotten, as well as an Easter that has shaped my understanding of the greatest of all Christian mysteries, the mystery of Christ’s Resurrection. It has also informed my image of Christ. As a result of having meditated (over and over again over the years) on that luminously beautiful and intimate moment during which the risen Christ visited His grieving mother, I have learned with my heart that Ignatius was right: Christ is the Great Consoler who comes to us at moments of loss or crisis, reassures us and shows us how to live lives that are meaningful, transformative, and holy. But what would such a life look like? Just this: a life lived in imitation of the Lord Himself. It means living a life of unselfish and compassionate service. Service that is born of love. Service that comes from a heart that is deeply touched by the sufferings of others and that yearns to relieve them.
My dear friends, our city, our nation, and our world are wounded. Deeply. Tears seem to come more naturally to us these days than smiles and laughter. Therefore, I think that the best way to celebrate this Easter is to celebrate it as the Easter of Christ the Consoler. To do so, let us commit ourselves to being consolers after Christ’s own heart. That may seem to be an impossible task. In his Palm Sunday homily, however, Pope Francis reminded us (as if we needed to be reminded) that we already have in our midst saintly role models whose service can and does inspire us to take up the ministry of consolation: “The path of service is the victorious and life-giving path by which we were saved. Dear friends, look at the real heroes who come to light in these days: they are those who are giving themselves in order to serve others. Feel called yourselves to put your lives on the line. For life is a gift we receive only when we give ourselves away, and our deepest joy comes from saying yes to love, without ifs and buts. To truly say yes to love, without ifs and buts.” And he is right: life really is a gift that we receive only when we give ourselves away, and our deepest joy comes from saying yes to love, without ifs and buts. We all know that. We really do.
Taking up the challenge that Pope Francis has placed before us, on this Easter of Christ the Consoler, then, let us make it our special duty to strengthen the fainthearted, to support the weak, to comfort those who mourn, to dispel darkness with light, to bring hope to those paralyzed with anxiety, and to coax a smile onto the face of a frightened child. I assure you that, no matter what your faith may be, this is the celebration in which the God of All Consolation (by whatever name we call Him) delights, and the service that will restore our city, our nation, and our world at this fraught time in human history.
Be assured of my constant prayers for you, your families, and all whom you love. And may the graces and blessings of Passover and Easter be yours in overflowing abundance.
Prayers and blessings,
Joseph M. McShane, S.J.
A Prayer in the Midst of the Present Crisis
God of all mercies, grant:
To the Fordham family, safety and good health:
To those afflicted with COVID-19, swift healing;
To the frightened, courage;
To the dying, comfort;
To the dead, eternal life;
To health care providers, strength and stamina;
To our leaders, wisdom and compassion;
To our nation, unity of purpose;
To the Church, the grace to serve the suffering selflessly;
To all believers, strong faith in Your presence;
To the whole human family, unity of heart; and
To us, Your servants, the reward of knowing that we are doing Your will when we spend ourselves in loving service of others.