Witnesses to Christ, Naked on the Cross

Witnesses to Christ, Naked on the Cross


Here is a link to today’s readings.

shutterstock_219961078-2Mother Teresa is being canonized today! She, like all the saints, is what I call a remote witness. They are able to speak to us over centuries, although we never knew them personally in most cases. They come from other places and times and cultures, thus demonstrating the catholic nature of our faith. We need these witnesses, and I rejoice that we can now turn to St. Teresa of Calcutta as a friend and intercessor in Heaven.

In addition to remote witnesses, I think each of us also needs proximate witnesses. These are the people in our own lives who model holiness and who act as role models in our specific cultural milieu. For me, one such person was my dear friend Fr. Jack Kelley, who died of cancer two and a half years ago. He had conquered multiple myeloma, which he began fighting back in 1996, and was living a healthy, cancer-free life that his doctors considered miraculous. He used to enjoy telling people that his doctors were a Jew, a Muslim, and a Catholic (“It sounds like a joke,” he would say) and since all three agreed it was a miraculous healing, he accepted their judgment. In his words, “They told me I had two-and-one-half years to live [three at most]. And that was 16 years ago.”¹He attributed the cure to the prayers of so many parishioners to God through the intercession of now-Blessed Frédéric Ozanam, founder of the St. Vincent de Paul Society (“He was beatified the week I returned from my sick leave,” Fr. Jack remembered).

Fr Jack and me in Kennybunkport 2013About his sickness, Fr. Jack said, “I never asked, ‘Why me?’” Instead, “I asked, ‘why not me? I’m as vulnerable as anybody else to a disease. But I would never fault anybody who does ask, ‘Why me?’” He simply accepted the cross with faith in God. He used his Lazarus experience, as his good friend Msgr. Tom Sullivan called his recovery, to minister to others with multiple myeloma. “I thank God for the blessing of having cancer,” Fr. Jack said. “It’s deepened my faith… Now I’m more compassionate because I know what it’s like to be seriously ill… I think it’s made me a better human being as well as a better priest.” After years of ministering to others, a second cancer, this time colon cancer, took his life in 2014. He was just shy of 79 years old. Among his final words were those spoken to Msgr. Sullivan, “I won’t say goodbye… I’ll say Au revoir,” meaning, quite literally, until I see you again. Such faith!

Fr. Jack understood the words in today’s psalm, “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart.” When he said he didn’t ask “why me?” he was acknowledging the words in the book of Wisdom: “Who can know God’s counsel, or who can conceive what the LORD intends?” Above all, he understood that basic principle of Christianity, “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”

Frankly, I don’t like crosses. Who in their right mind does? Jesus didn’t. He prayed in the Garden asking the Father to “let this cup pass from me” (Matt. 26:39). Even when the events of his life would leave him feeling forsaken on the cross, his faith did not waver. “Not as I will, but as You will,” he had prayed (Matt. 26:39), having taught us to do the same: “Thy will be done” (Matt. 6:10). Then, naked on the cross, he handed himself over to the Father, deprived of everything he owned.

shutterstock_302548805-2Christians must accept the cross, and we must be naked as well, standing before God in absolute humility, having nothing except trust in God’s justice, love, and mercy, and our love in return for love. We spend a lifetime shattering idols and trying to break our foolish dependence on things. In the end, we will lose everything anyway. Even our flesh itself will turn “back to dust.” Just like that, cancer or tragedy strikes, like it did Fr. Jack. And we have nothing to hold onto except the Body of Christ on the cross and in the world. It makes sense, then, that Jesus joins to the requirement of the cross a requirement about our attachment to things: “anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.” I have a lot of work still to do in this regard. How about you? Fortunately, we have witnesses to the possibility of holiness, witnesses remote and proximate, like St. Teresa of Calcutta, Blessed Frédéric Ozanam, and Fr. Jack Kelley, who remind us, as the Lord taught St. Paul, “My grace is enough for you” (2 Cor. 12:9).

¹The quotes in burgundy are taken from an article about Fr. Jack Kelley and end-of-life medical ethics in The Catholic Free Press by Tanya Connor, Nov. 12, 2012 (page 1). Not finding an electronic version, I am grateful to the author for sending me her original piece and for granting permission to use it here.

  • Marion Collins
    Posted at 21:58h, 05 September

    Good job, Kevin, I like the comments. of your remote and proximate witnesses to our Faith.
    We all have favorite Saints to whom we pray as intercessors.. In my mind we could not find. a Better or Wiser role model than Teresa of Calcutta.. I also know my proximate role model is my mother to whom I pray daily. As intercessor for myself or others. She formed my Faith and was the best role model one could have for a woman and mother. She like Your friend, Fr, Jack Kelley died with cancer.. I feel the pain of missing her as you do with Fr. Jack –it lessens but never really goes away..
    Fr. Jack’s comment about not saying “Why me but why not me” is such a strong message to all of us as well as the strength of his Faith and Humility that no one is more or less deserving of a terminal illness.. Our humility should echo his, in that, walking with someone who is visibly dying. before your eyes does strengthen one’s Faith and Compassion for the person and his or her Family.
    Much as I try to “Let go and let God” I still would like to discuss His intentions for me.. “Thy will be done” is not an easy command to follow. It demands Humility and total Trust in God.–a work in process!
    Thank you, Kevin Dowd and Bayard for the Memories, Reminders and Wake -up calls!