Returning to the Foundation

By Dominican Father Gabriel B. O’Donnell, vice postulator and Guild director

Fr. Gabriel B. O'Donnell, O.P.

Hard economic times bring plenty of suffering. Besides the usual tensions and problems typical of family life, there is the possible loss of a job, the need to cut back on the “extras” that enrich the formation of children or the threat of not making the mortgage all of which put extra strain on parents and children alike.

Grandparents are not immune to the stress either. They would like to alleviate the situation, but often have fixed incomes shrinking in value. Middle-class America, so used to a certain way of living, is not prepared for the deprivations that such hard times bring. The spiritual danger is that we see the current economic downturn as a misfortune that must be endured until things “turn around” and then we can resume our life as it was.

For the man or woman of faith, however, the question is always: “What does God wish me to learn from this experience? What does this mean for my relationship with Him?”

These are the sorts of questions that Father Michael J. McGivney pondered as he ministered to his flock at St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, and later as pastor of St. Thomas Church in Thomaston, Conn.

The parishioners of St. Mary’s, largely Irish immigrants, built a beautiful Church well beyond their means. At that time the parish was the center of Catholic social and spiritual life, and the poverty of the immigrant community imposed great limits on the possible activities of the community.

Part of Father McGivney’s pastoral genius was his ability to find ways of bringing people together to enjoy one another and have plenty of fun. It could be a picnic or dance in the parish hall, but this man of God wanted his people to enjoy life in spite of their poverty.

The important issue for our consideration is not Father McGivney’s pastoral creativity, real as it was, but his ability to lead his people to search out and ponder the serious issues suggested by their poverty, their lack of material resources and the consequent limits and deprivations that they suffered. For him, as for all the saints, the need to depend upon God in hard times was a blessing.

Not simply a matter of being optimistic, rather, he had the vision of faith that saw God’s hand in all human situations.

Might God permit this time of financial hardship for our good? Might we find in our desperation a deeper level of family unity and mutual dependence? Father McGivney saw that the hardships his parishioners endured could be used to lead them to God.

The scriptures speak often and eloquently of God’s particular love for the poor, the outcast, the widows and the orphans. These were the “clients” of Father McGivney’s remarkable priestly ministry.

Those who suffer deprivation know that they need God to survive and they must depend on him in faith to survive with dignity or a sense of self-worth. Today, we cannot say that God has sent economic hardship as punishment for our sins or as means of moral correction.

On the other hand, we can say that no matter the agent of the hardship, God, in his providence, uses such difficulties to reveal more about himself, more about his love for us and more about how life on earth —in good times and bad —is the pathway to eternal happiness.

The life and work of Venerable Father Michael J. McGivney is a witness to the truth that one can be happy and enjoy a rich life of union with God even when deprived of material necessities. The hope and confidence in God that he brought to those entrusted to his pastoral care came from his faith. The same should be true for each of us.

We hope for the reversal of economic hardship, of course. In the meantime, God is actively teaching us to find him as the strength to bear the burdens before us, to trust in him and learn deep lessons about needing God, depending on him and depending on those we love to sustain us when things are tough and hope is dim.

Our therapeutic culture suggests that talking about potential problems within the family is preventive medicine. The discussion of drugs, alcohol and sexual conduct head the list of important topics. Perhaps before all these should be a conversation about the spiritual implications of tightening our belts and going without the perks we take for granted. It can be as simple as not eating out at fast food restaurants or as serious as no more piano or dancing lessons, or no more athletic programs that require equipment and travel. How can such deprivations be borne by the Christian family as a moment of spiritual enlightenment?

If Father McGivney used adversity to bring his people to God, can we do any less? Social commentators describe today’s emerging adults as having a strong sense of entitlement. They are convinced that life should, and will, provide them with all that they want and need for life in the world.

The current economic difficulties may provide the opportunity, within the family, to break through that sense of entitlement and help the next generation understand how much determination, hard work and a serious life of faith are needed if one is to survive – much less succeed – in life. One can be happy with less. Every man or woman can be happy even when all our desires are not fulfilled.

This is true only if we live in faith and learn the meaning of true Christian family life.

Father McGivney is a great patron for us as we face the struggles of the 21st century. He teaches us how to find meaning in all of the moral relativism and materialism of our time.

Please continue to pray for a successful outcome for the examination of a reported miracle attributed to Venerable Father McGivney’s intercession now taking place in Rome.