Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Though a morning viewing of Sports Center is not part of my ordinary routine, on Monday I decided to tune in for some reason. Moments later, they shared the story of Shelly Pennefather, a former basketball player at Villanova who is now Sister Rose Marie, a cloistered nun in a Poor Clares convent in Virginia. In the 28 years since she entered the convent, her all-time scoring record (2,408 points) at Villanova has not been broken by any player, male or female. She won the Wade Trophy in 1987, an award given to the best women’s college basketball player. But she was restless and searching for a deeper purpose in her life. More than her accomplishments, the most inspiring part of the story was how this woman with so much talent and potential chose to dedicate her entire life to Jesus Christ and will live out her days in intense prayer for the world. Sr. Rose Marie embraced the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience. The evangelical counsels as lived in the Church are drawn from the Gospel example of Jesus, who was poor, chaste, and obedient to His Heavenly Father. We most often associate this vowed life with monks and nuns. As “counsels” though, they are meant for all Christians. In the Gospel this weekend, we receive a glimpse of how these evangelical counsels can be lived out in the lives of believers. Three principle spiritual practices flow from these counsels, and Jesus exhorts us to follow them in this Gospel. We are invited to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. While we often think of these practices during the Lenten season, the truth is that they are meant to be observed all year long.
Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving correspond in a beautiful way to the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience. In order to receive the Kingdom promised by the Father, Jesus tells us to sell our belongings and give alms. Clearly, almsgiving and poverty are connected. To give from our resources and to be detached from material possessions gives us the freedom we need in order to receive the Kingdom. Some are called to a radical form of voluntary poverty in religious life, but most of us are called to live out poverty by means of our almsgiving and our detachment from material things. We can draw a connection between fasting and chastity, as well. Jesus calls us to be ready for the Master’s return when He comes and knocks. To remain always at the ready requires discipline. Fasting, in whatever form it may take in our lives – from food, from television or media, from other activities – teaches us the discipline required so that our appetites may be rightly ordered and through this right ordering, we may keep our eyes open for the Master’s return. The evangelical counsel of chastity is a radical way of living out this vital discipline, and stands as a visible sign of readiness to meet the Lord. The evangelical counsel of obedience can be related well to the spiritual discipline of prayer. To obey God in all things requires a relationship, which is only possible in the prayerfulness of our hearts. Within a relationship of love and communication, obedience becomes far more than following rules or orders. Rather, it becomes an expression of love. When Peter asks Jesus if this lesson is meant only for some, Jesus lays down a great challenge – to be a good and faithful servant who lives in anticipation of the Master’s return. Our Lord attaches no limits to the audience for this challenge; it is for all people.
The evangelical counsels and the great pillars of the spiritual life provide a framework in which we can find both inspiration and direction. While prayer, fasting, and almsgiving help us on a personal level to grow in holiness and virtue, the evangelical counsels help us to give witness in the world to the power and grace of God at work, and to the hope held in store for us in heaven. The world desperately needs this witness. I encourage you to be missionaries who live the evangelical counsels in your own life. Give witness to the power and grace of Jesus Christ, be a living sign of hope, not just for a short while, but every day. God is calling you. In a week with multiple mass-shootings and other bad news, ESPN still ran a story about a cloistered nun. Why? In a world that seems so hopeless, Shelly Pennefather is a living sign of hope. As Catholics, we also know that she is a dedicated evangelist, a witness of the value of the Gospel. Each and every one of us can be an instrument for the conversion of this world. We will do this not only by political action, but most of all by our embrace of our Lord’s challenge to be like servants who await their Master’s return, to be faithful and prudent, to give alms, to live our lives not for ourselves but for Him, the one who saves the world from sin and death, the one who is the true Living Hope of the world.