By Bishop Joseph Kopacz
During 2015 we are marking anniversaries of life’s beginnings and endings of three significant Christians and Americans whose legacy will endure for generations to come. These outstanding citizens in hope of the Kingdom are Sister Thea Bowman, Thomas Merton, and Abraham Lincoln. Sister Thea succumbed to cancer 25 years ago; Thomas Merton, born one hundred years ago, died unexpectedly in Bangkok, Thailand, by accidental electrocution in 1968, and Abraham Lincoln passed at the hand of an assassin’s bullet 150 years ago. The lives of all three were cut short but their words and their deeds are likely to inspire for as long as people of good will and transcendent faith search for meaning in their lives.
A series of local events have marked the 25th anniversary of Sister Thea’s death, and there are many alive today who walked and served with her in the Diocese of Jackson. Recently “Thea’s Turn” was staged at Madison St. Joseph School, and the brilliance of the presentation captured the ordinariness of the young Bertha and the saintliness and historic virtue of Thea, the passionate religious. Her little light shone brightly during this and other commemorative events held locally and in many settings throughout our region and nation. In 1987, a few years before here death, Sister Thea appeared on 60 Minutes with Mike Wallace. She inspired him and many viewers with the following.
“I think the difference between me and some people is that I’m content to do my little bit. Sometimes people think they have to do big things in order to make change. But if each one would light a candle we’d have a tremendous light.”
Many of the Christian faith, especially in the Catholic Church, but also throughout the inter-faith world and among people of no religious faith, are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk who was passionately committed to a life of solitude and social justice on the world stage. Out of solitude as a monk in Gethsemane, Kentucky, he wrote prodigiously as an author (more than 70 books), a poet and a letter writer, corresponding with people in all walks of life from all corners of the globe. His way of life as a monk, combined with his prophetic world view on issues of justice and peace, and his personal letters in response to all who wrote to him, proclaimed to the world what he believed, that “We are already One.” This vision for humanity resounds in the following quotation from his works.
“What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it, all the rest are not only useless, but also disastrous.”
Abraham Lincoln was the determined public servant who sought the highest office in the land at the time when the nation was on the brink of Civil War. He became, in life and in death, the symbol of its blood soaked struggle for unity as the 16th president, the first in a line of four assassinated presidents. Throughout his adult life he experienced enormous setbacks, including a failed business, the death of his son, a nervous breakdown, election defeats for the State Legislature of Illinois, the U.S. Congress, the U.S. Senate, as well as nomination for the Vice Presidency. He finally achieved electoral success as the President of the United States, and the rest is history. He was passionately committed to the preservation of the Union as he proclaimed at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in the aftermath of that brutal battle. We recall a portion of his address.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal… It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work, which they who fought here, have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Whenever we probe more deeply into the lives of people we consider worthy of honor and emulation we discover that their lives were not without struggle, suffering and sacrifice. Let us not forget during this Easter Season to look no further than the suffering and death of the Lord on the cross, and his ultimate triumph in the resurrection. In earthly terms, Jesus the Nazarene was put to death at a much younger age than Sister Thea, Brother Thomas, and President Abraham, but his sacrificial death raises up all who lay down their lives for the salvation and advancement of humanity.
Certainly, our three great souled men and woman would be the first to acknowledge that they were “earthen vessels” holding an eternal treasure as Saint Paul writes so poetically to the Corinthians. In a colloquial manner of speaking, they had “clay feet” but their vision for humanity was eternal. They understood the mandate of Jesus to his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount in St. Matthew’s Gospel. “Let your light shine before all, so that others may see goodness in your acts, and give praise to your Heavenly Father.” Likewise, may the Lord inspire us during this season of Easter hope to reflect his light in our time upon the earth.
By Bishop Joseph Kopacz