(Fr. Guillermo García-Tuñón, S.J. delivered this homily at the Baccalaureate Mass on April 26, 2021, held at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Doral.)
In just a few weeks, we will be celebrating a historic moment in the life of the Jesuits. May 20th marks the 500-year anniversary of the injury St. Ignatius of Loyola sustained from a cannonball in the Battle of Pamplona. Because of this anniversary, the Superior General has declared an Ignatian Year to take place from that day and conclude on July 31, 2022, the feast day of St. Ignatius. May 20th is the day of your alumni pin mass, the event that will celebrate your formal induction into the Belen Alumni Association. This, of course, is followed on the 21st by your graduation ceremony at the James L. Knight Center.
To consider certain events in the life of Ignatius and the Society of Jesus is important. Remembering and celebrating the date of his death, or the date of the founding of the Society of Jesus, or the date of his canonization makes sense, but what is so significant about remembering and celebrating the date of such a terrible injury? I mean, that day was a day of incredible pain, gloom, and despair. Why remember and celebrate it?
Well, if you know anything about the life of St. Ignatius of Loyola, you would know that he was not always a saint. Although he was raised in Catholic Spain and baptized as a child in his local parish church, he was far from living the life of a devout man. On the contrary, he was prone to fits of anger, was extremely vain and selfish, and dreamed of going to war and using his sword to protect the honor of a young and beautiful maiden, as well as the honor of the king. It was in the Battle of Pamplona, while protecting the interests of Spain over the French, that he suffered that serious injury.
Leading the hopeless charge against an army that outnumbered his, Ignatius was struck by a cannonball that broke both of his legs, leaving one very seriously damaged. Because of his great valor, the French took pity on him and placed him on a stretcher sending him back to recover from his injuries at his home in Loyola. It was there Ignatius was left for several agonizing months with nothing to do but read and think. As providence would have it, there were only two books available for him to read. One was a book on the life of Christ and the other on the life of the saints. At first, he read them reluctantly, but then, as time went on, with every page he turned, he was drawn closer and closer to the lives of the heroic men and women who selflessly surrendered their lives for Christ.
This was the beginning of Ignatius’s conversion and that dreadful injury was the event that put him on a spiritual journey that would last the rest of his life. Laying in that bed in his room he would think to himself, “If St. Francis of Assisi or St. Dominic can do this, why can’t I?” He began to notice that when he dreamed of returning to the life he lived before, he was filled with consolation, it made him happy, but it was short-lived. Then, when he dreamed about living his life for Christ like the saints he read about, he was also filled with consolation and happiness, but this happiness lasted a lot longer than the other. It was here that Ignatius discovered what he called the discernment of spirits, a practice he would perfect and teach until the day he died.
There is no question the eventual founder of the Society of Jesus, the first Jesuit, had his own profound moment of conversion. That great leader whose order founded some of the greatest schools and universities the world has ever seen and led some of the most incredible missionaries to ever have graced the Church and world, had undergone a change. That saintly man who authored the Spiritual Exercises that have been experienced by popes, monarchs, and the common man for over 500 years and have helped change the lives of millions, became a new man. It was this “cannonball moment” that changed not only his life, but literally the course of human history.
Isn’t this the case with so many of us? If we were to stop and think about our lives, I am sure we can find moments such as this. They are watershed moments. Moments that shake us to the core and allow us to realize a change has to be made, that the road we are on is not the right one, that we need to alter our course and become a better person.
When I was 19 years old, I made the decision I wanted to be a Jesuit priest. Two years out of high school, I couldn’t deny there was a longing inside of me that seemed to push me in the direction of the priesthood. I had been raised in a strong Catholic family, I had been blessed to have known many good and holy priests and religious, and had remembered fondly moments of great consolation that came from prayer and service. So, in the innocence of my youth, I took the step to enter the seminary completely oblivious to the reality of what I was getting myself into.
I remember how difficult the first few months were. I was away from my family for the first time in my life, living in a backwoods town in the bayous of Louisiana, submerged in a disciplined life of prayer and studies the likes I had never seen. One of the first experiences in the seminary was the 30-day silent retreat. The very thought of it terrified me. To spend 30 days in silence and prayer seemed to work against every fiber in my body. I didn’t know if I would last.
After only a few days, I was in utter desolation and despair. I was distracted in prayer, felt anxious and afraid, experienced continuous restlessness. I would run to my spiritual director for help every day only to be turned away and told to simply remain faithful to prayer. It was a nightmare. Then something happened. One late afternoon, as I walked to the image of the Blessed Mother in the garden just outside my room, I stood there with my rosary in hand and asked Mary for her help. Like a child who runs to his mother when he falls and skins his knee, I ran to the mother of God for help, to find comfort in her presence.
As a matter of fact, it’s today’s gospel that helped build that sort of comfort not only for me, but for the Church around the world and throughout its history. Jesus, at the moment of his death, looks down upon the face of his mother, the one person who had been with him from the moment of his conception to the moment of his crucifixion, the one person who never abandoned him, and entrusts his disciple and thus the whole Church to her. He says, “Woman, behold your son” (John: 19:26) and then turns to John and says, “Behold your mother” (John 19:27). From this moment on, the disciples of Christ throughout the centuries have run to her for protection and help.
So, here I was, running to her for help. As I stood there in that garden looking up at her face, the cannonball struck. Mightier than any other experience I had before, I could hear, clear as day, as she spoke to my heart.
I noticed the image of Mary had the child Jesus in her arms. She held him out towards the viewer. I confess I had never noticed it before, but there he was. Then I heard Mary say, “Your problem is you don’t know my son Jesus”. She then proceeded to make an introduction. “Willie,” she said, “this is my son Jesus. Jesus, this is my son Willie”. That one moment completely blew me out of the water. It knocked me right off my feet. It changed my life forever. What I realized at that moment was I didn’t know Jesus. What had brought me to the doors of the seminary was a whole series of things, events, and people who pointed in his direction, but it wasn’t a personal relationship with him. There’s no question I had a relationship with my family, my friends, the Jesuits from Belen and the nuns from St. Timothy, but I didn’t have one with Christ.
That moment changed everything. Prayer became easier, the restlessness was gone. I looked forward to Mass and desired to learn more about it. I dove into the gospels to read more about Jesus. I began to envision my life as a priest and a missionary. I felt profound consolation knowing that I had been called to serve the Church and, more importantly, her King. I was hooked. That moment set me off on an incredible spiritual journey that lasts to this very day. It was one of my cannonball moments.
How about you? How about each and every one of you, members of the class of 2021?
The world today is embroiled in a battle against powerful enemies. COVID-19, political and social unrest, relativism, have taken over our lives and have set the world into a panic. Our lives have been altered, our comforts have been taken away, our fears have been stoked. For months we sat, imprisoned in our homes, like injured soldiers wondering what will happen and when will the pandemic end. Think about this year alone. The deaths of Anthony Parodi and, more recently, Mr. Jose del Dago, the challenges of holding important events that mark your senior year, and the anxiety of graduation and moving on to college and a life that is unknown, are not easy to handle. Sure, you can take them at face value and sulk in self-pity because it is unfair, we can’t do this and that, we are limited in who can do what. Yes, you can whine and complain about being shortchanged and it not being what we had planned.
Or, you can rise above all that and understand this as something that has extraordinary potential to be your cannonball moment. You can look at this as an opportunity to reflect on your life and honestly evaluate what is good and what is bad, what needs to stay and what needs to go away. You can seize the moment and see it as an opportunity, not only to appreciate more the good that you have, but also a great moment to be sincere and recognize the bad and work on rooting it out. Ultimately, it can be a time of gratitude because you can count your blessings and realize how much you truly have.
Gratitude! What a word. What a concept. To give thanks. There is nothing more godly, more reflective of a true son of God, nothing more at the very center of joy than gratitude. And yet, there is nothing worse, nothing more inhumane, nothing more unbecoming than a lack of it. Maybe this is a great cannonball moment. To push way bitterness and simply give thanks. To do that, especially in the midst of great adversity, is to rise up and be holy.
Let me give you an example. For over a year, the Parodi family lingered in a hospital room with their son who was slowly dying of a terrible illness. Not once did Mrs. Parodi leave that hospital room. Like a sentinel, she guarded her boy and was at his beck and call every moment of the day, every day of the week, every week of that year. His father trudged to work every day, away from his family, in order to continue paying the bills and making sure his son had the best medical treatment they could afford. His sister put her studies at NYU on hold so she could be with her brother in the moment of his greatest need.
When Anthony eventually passed away, I can’t even imagine the sadness, anger, and hardship they must have experienced. And yet, every time I spoke to them, every time I met with them, all they expressed was gratitude. Gratitude to the doctors and nurses who took care of their son. Gratitude to the alumni, students, and teachers who took them food and prayed a rosary for him every night. Gratitude to Belen who kept him registered as a student, had him participate in every Zoom class, and held his funeral mass in our central patio.
I would contest that it is that very attitude of gratitude that will get them through their terrible ordeal. It is the sweet taste of gratitude that will help them overcome the bitterness of death.
Gentlemen, as the effects of the pandemic slowly begin to subside and as more and more people are vaccinated and things around us begin to open up, I hear so many people ask the question, “when will we return to our normal lives?” Well, maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe this is the moment that can help change everything. Maybe this is the experience that will help set us on a path to a better life, a holier life. Maybe this is our call to conversion, our cannonball moment.
Our Lady of Belen… pray for us.