With coronavirus spreading, schools and businesses closing, and dioceses canceling all public Masses, there’s a spirit of fear gripping the world.
Christians are told not to be afraid, even forbidden to be anxious (Phil 4:6), but we also see Jesus himself afraid while praying in the Garden before his Passion. Many of us have experienced a lessening of anxiety, fear, and worry as we’ve come to trust in the Lord more, but still we find ourselves afraid, especially as we face a global pandemic. And because we know we ought to trust God, fear feels like faithlessness, which only makes it worse.
But those of us who are afraid are not alone in that. Rather than repressing our fear or allowing it to consume us, let’s look at the lives of the saints who turned to the Lord in their fear and found hope, even if they were no less afraid.
St. Augustine of Canterbury (d. 604) had been sent by St. Gregory the Great to preach in England. But as the company journeyed north, they were regaled with tales of the savage ways of the English pagans, and the perils of crossing the English Channel. The men were so terrified that Augustine instructed the others to wait in France as he returned to Rome to consult the Holy Father. Presumably, Augustine hoped Gregory would cancel the mission; instead he encouraged Augustine, who returned to his men, finished the journey to England, and experienced such success that he’s known as “the Apostle to the English.”
Bl. Sebastian Valfrè (1629-1710) seemed confident and congenial, but his writings tell another story: he was terrified. He was afraid that he was unworthy to be an Oratorian priest, and because of that he became afraid of God. Still, he prayed, though it was often agonizing. He celebrated Mass, heard confessions, preached the Gospel, all the while riddled with anxiety. And this is what put him on the path to great holiness. In many ways, Valfrè was rather an unremarkable priest. But to be an unremarkable priest in the midst of doubt and anguish and terror (what seems to us likely to have been an anxiety disorder)—that is pretty nearly miraculous.
Ven. Francis Libermann (1804-1852) had always been sensitive, easily frightened. Though he found great joy and peace in converting to Catholicism from Judaism, that didn’t mean an absence of fear and anxiety. Libermann was anxious about having disappointed his father, about the anti-Semitism he experienced, about the epilepsy that required him to abandon his dreams of priesthood, about the terrible responsibility of being a spiritual director. He was so anxious that for a time he was afraid to cross bridges because he worried he would throw himself off the bridge. Libermann was ultimately ordained and became the founder of a missionary order; though he still struggled with fear, in the end he was no longer ruled by his anxiety.
Bl. Maria Yi Seong-Rye (1801-1840) was married to St. Francis Choe Kyong-hwan. But when the two were arrested for being Christians, Maria’s youngest was with her in prison, starving as her milk dried up. So the woman who would not have denied her Lord to save her own life apostatized to save her child. She was released, her faith unchanged but her heart broken over her apostasy. Soon Maria was arrested again. This time, she entrusted her children to people who would care for them. Knowing that they were safe, she was able to withstand physical torture; severe as it was, it could never compare to a mother’s anguished fear for her children’s safety.
St. Frances Xavier Cabrini (1850-1917) fell into a creek when she was seven and nearly drowned. This accident left her with a lifelong fear of water. So when she approached the pope to ask his approval for a new religious order of missionaries to China, she may have been hoping to travel over land. Instead, the Holy Father sent her to the United States. But Cabrini was unwilling to let her fears stand in the way of the salvation of souls, so she climbed aboard a ship—the first of over two dozen transatlantic trips she would take en route to becoming the first American saint.
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St. Oscar Romero (1917-1980) wasn’t always the courageous archbishop willing to lay down his life. By nature, Romero was shy, bookish, and timid. The oppressive government of El Salvador wanted him as Archbishop for just that reason—they felt sure he would be easy to control. But Romero saw the suffering of his people and began to be driven more by love than by fear. Ultimately, his love of the people caused him to live recklessly, fighting for them whatever the cost. Though his journal reveals that Romero was still a worrier (often concerned that his radio show would be ruined), he stopped living from fear and won a martyr’s crown.
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