When Jesus “told his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly there at the hands of the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be put to death, and raised up on the third day,“ Peter tried to convince Him not to do it. Jesus told Peter he was a stumbling block to His mission (Mt. 16: 21-27). While Peter had good intentions in saying that, his spiritual maturity at that time made him think that following Jesus meant a life of comfort and ease. He didn’t realize yet that Jesus had a mission to fulfill, in obedience to the Heavenly Father. Jesus said, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and come follow me.” Many years later, Peter followed Jesus and was also crucified, but upside down.
What Jesus demonstrated was total focus to the will of the Father. In fact, in all the references to His mission, Jesus was amazingly focused, even while he was tempted many times to do the contrary. Many saints gave up themselves and their lives for Jesus. The past week can’t be complete without remembering St. John the Baptist, whose beheading we commemorated, and the mother-and-son saints, St. Monica and St. Augustine, whose feast days we celebrated. Their lives are fine examples of what real and authentic discipleship of Christ is all about.
(We will not emphasize St. John the Baptist as we already have devoted writing on his life in an earlier reflection. He is one of the very few personalities in the Bible whose birthday and death are both commemorated by the Church. Let’s instead focus our attention on St. Monica and St. Augustine.)
The circumstances of St. Monica’s life could have made her a nagging wife, a bitter daughter-in-law and a despairing parent, yet she did not give way to any of these temptations. Although she was a Christian, her parents gave her in marriage to a pagan, Patricius, who lived in her hometown of Tagaste in North Africa. While having some redeeming features, he had a violent temper and was licentious. Monica also had to bear with a cantankerous mother-in-law who lived in her home. Patricius criticized his wife because of her charity and piety, but always respected her. Monica’s prayers and example finally won her husband and mother-in-law to Christianity. Her husband died in 371, one year after his baptism.
Monica was distressed to learn that her son Augustine, who was 17 at the time of his father’s death, had accepted the Manichean heresy (all flesh is evil) and was living an immoral life. However, she persisted in staying close to her son, praying and fasting for him. It was on Easter Sunday, Year 387, that St. Ambrose baptized Augustine and several of his friends. Soon after, his group left for Africa. Although no one else was aware of it, Monica knew her life was near the end. She told Augustine, “Son, nothing in this world now affords me delight. I do not know what there is now left for me to do or why I am still here, all my hopes in this world being now fulfilled.” She became ill shortly after and suffered severely for nine days before her death.
St. Augustine, on the other hand, spent many years of his life in wicked living and in false beliefs. Though he was reputed to be “one of the most intelligent men who ever lived” and though he had been brought up a Christian, his sins of impurity and his pride darkened his mind so much, that he could not see or understand the Divine Truth anymore. Through the prayers of his holy mother and the marvelous preaching of St. Ambrose, Augustine finally became convinced that Christianity was the one true religion. Yet he did not become a Christian then, because he thought he could never live a pure life. One day, however, he heard about two men who had suddenly been converted on reading the life of St. Antony of Egypt, and he felt terrible ashamed of himself. “What are we doing?” he cried to his friend Alipius. “Unlearned people are taking Heaven by force, while we, with all our knowledge, are so cowardly that we keep rolling around in the mud of our sins!” (American Catholic.Org)
Denying ourselves. Taking up our Cross. Full of bitter sorrow, Augustine flung himself out into the garden and cried out to God, “How long more, O Lord? Why does not this hour put an end to my sins?” Just then he heard a child singing, “Take up and read!” Thinking that God intended him to hear those words, he picked up the book of the Letters of St. Paul, and read the first passage his gaze fell on. It was just what Augustine needed, for in it, St. Paul says to put away all impurity and to live in imitation of Jesus. That did it! From then on, Augustine began a new life. Another example of humility and courage at its finest.
Following Jesus means imitating Christ. He was baptized, became a priest, a bishop, a famous Catholic writer, founder of religious priests, and one of the greatest saints that ever lived. He became very devout and charitable, too. On the wall of his room he had the following sentence written in large letters: “Here we do not speak evil of anyone.” St. Augustine overcame strong heresies, practiced great poverty and supported the poor, preached very often and prayed with great fervor right up until his death. “Too late have I loved You!” he once cried to God, but with his holy life he certainly made up for the sins he committed before his conversion.
The Catholic Church has numerous examples of what authentic discipleship is all about. The number doesn’t stop there as everyday, many more have decided to live their lives for God.
Champions get engaged with life. Always. Champions are committed to the common good over narrow self-interests. Champions believe that greatness was never meant to be a personal agenda. Champions stay the course. The good fight is always worth the fight.
Champions, despite life’s mysteries and challenges, rejoice and stay joyful.