“Everyone who acknowledges Me before others, I will acknowledge before My heavenly Father. But whoever denies Me before others, I will deny before My heavenly Father.”
It’s not very often that the Vatican gives approval to a film showing at the cinema, but it happened in 1997 when the Italian movie Life is Beautiful was first released. It’s an unusual film which deals with a sensitive subject, that of the Nazi Holocaust and the deportation of Jews to concentration camps. Although it won an Oscar for best picture, the movie has its critics as well as its admirers.
The film tells the story of a Jewish Italian man named Guido, an attractive clown-like figure who falls in love with Dora, the woman of his dreams. His humorous personality wins her affection and eventually they marry and have a son. The little boy is about six years old when the Nazi persecution takes over. The Germans round up Guido and his son and, because Dora refuses to be left behind, all three are taken to a concentration camp. When they arrive the couple is separated in preparation for hard labor. Any children are killed, but Guido hides his son and persuades him the whole business is a game in which he must co-operate if he wants to win a prize. The scenes unfold with a mixture of comedy and drama, exploring the rich themes of love, of sacrifice, and of courage.
Towards the end of the film the concentration camp is on the verge of being liberated by the allies and the guards begin to execute the inmates. In trying to protect his son and find his wife, Guido is caught and shot. His son survives and is eventually reunited with his mother, but none of this would have been possible without the hope passed on from father to son. Guido offered his son a way of seeing things that went beyond the difficulties and threats. He enabled him to look at reality through a different lens, one that brought joy and that, ultimately, saved his life.
Three times in this short Gospel, from St. Matthew that we heard today, Jesus urges His disciples not to be afraid. There can be nothing more real and more paralyzing than fear, and the fact is, that for many people the reasons for fear do not come to an end in a relatively short period of time. They remain as a permanent landscape in their lives, and the feelings of fear are never far from their awareness. Social scientists tell us that since 9/11 there is a pervasive fear, a kind of low-grade fever, which for many Americans has the potential to rob them of hope or confidence in the future. It threatens to put them into a kind of permanent depression.
If you are a child or a teenager and your parents are going through or have gone through a divorce, you know what fear is and how crippling it can be. If you or your spouse has ever suffered a heart attack or been diagnosed with a terminal illness, it is not just heartache that you carry with you; it is fear and uncertainty that threatens to destroy your very self. No one escapes fear. Many times fear is a healthy signal that our bodies and minds give off, telling us that we need to pay attention to a specific situation that we need to acknowledge, and find ways to deal with it. But there is also a fear that is not healthy. There is a fear that distorts our judgment, and which robs our spirit of peace. There is a fear that is only one step away from anger and blame, a fear that feeds on denial and our need to control. All of those things that, Jesus says, would destroy us from within.
At the conclusion of today’s Gospel, Jesus forewarns us how the danger of fear can ultimately destroy us from within. If we let fear dominate our innermost beings, it can affect the way in which we believe, speak about and live out our Christian faith. Fear can destroy our loyalty to Christ, because we are afraid to lose some earthly person, place or thing that we are too attached to.
But if we allow the Holy Spirit to transform us, through our openness to change, the sacraments, prayer, study and good works, then we will gradually come to understand how passing the things of this life really are, and grow less attached to them. At the same time, our love for God will grow and our paralyzing fear will slowly dissipate.
It is the plain fact of history that if there had not been courageous men and women in the early Church, who in the face of death and agony, refused to deny Jesus Christ, there would be no Christian Church as it is today. The Church today is built on the unbreakable loyalty of those who held close to their faith, in the face of rejection, failure and persecution of all sorts.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, it is not by chance that the first words of today’s Gospel about God’s love are: “Fear no one!” At the birth of Jesus, the words of the angels to the shepherds were: “Fear not!” At the resurrection of Jesus, the angels say to the women at the tomb: “Why are you afraid?” In His ministry, how many times does Jesus say: “Fear not; it is I!” The Good News of the Gospel is that we don’t have to pretend about life. Unlike Guido, the father in my opening story, Jesus doesn’t play a game with His followers, pretending that the reality of their world is something different from what it seems to be. But He does offer them a different way of looking at things, a different perspective through which they can find joyful reassurance and fullness of life.
Joyful confidence for our day of personal judgment is something we should have in this life; a basis for it is to be found in St. Paul’s daring statement, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”
The fear which is not compatible with charity is servile fear, which sees God only as one who punishes those who transgress his commandments. But filial fear, which is compatible with charity, is what gives a Christian a deep horror of sin because it is something which cuts him off from the love of God his Father
So our prayer today should be to ask Our Lord, through the intercession of Our Lady, St. Joseph, and all the angels and saints, and especially the martyrs of the Church, for the grace to be courageous in the face of popular opinion. Let us ask Almighty God, to give us the grace to be not only hearers, but doers of His Holy Word, not only to admire, but to obey His divine doctrine, not only to profess, but to practice the Catholic Faith before others, especially outside of church, and not only to love, but to live the Gospels, and reach that perfection of charity which shows itself in a serene confidence in God and a consequent absence of fear, so that when the time comes we may stand before Jesus on Judgment Day and be confident that He will acknowledge us before His heavenly Father!
Mary, Help of Christians, pray for us!