Fr. Emil Kapaun was a US Army Chaplain in WWII. He was a Medal of Honor recipient and died as a P.O.W. A famous picture shows how he would celebrate Mass in war zones using the hood of his jeep as an altar.
St. Maximilian Kolbe was a Franciscan priest who was taken and eventually imprisoned in the Auschwitz concentration camp. When a fellow prisoner was about to be killed, Kolbe volunteered to switch places with him. The guards let the man live and Kolbe spent the last two weeks of his life praying with prisoners being starved and dehydrated to death. He was eventually killed by a lethal injection.
Hearing stories of these and countless other heroic priests played a significant role in leading me to apply to the seminary. There was something I was beginning to find appealing in the sacrificial nature of the priesthood. After my first year of seminary I felt like I possessed the conviction of a martyr, the zeal of a knight in shining armor, and the courage of a soldier willing to run into the line of fire. (Slightly exaggerated, but not by much.)
This year I’m taking a break from my studies in order to have a “full-immersion” experience of parish life. Just as students take “full immersion” trips in a foreign country to learn a new language, so too am I enrolling in the classroom of parish life- fulling immersing myself in and learning from the reality of diocesan priesthood. In my first month, I’ve already learned a lot about myself and the priesthood. One thing I’ve been reflecting on lately is that, if you want to be heroic, all you need to do is go to bingo.
In his book Interior Freedom, Fr. Jacques Philippe speaks on how “love transfigures everything and touches the most banal realities with a note of infinity.” He relates this to the experience we sometimes have of feeling restricted when we must do something we wouldn’t ordinarily choose willingly. He continues, “Very often we feel restricted in our situation…But maybe the real problem lies elsewhere: in our hearts. There we are restricted, and that is the root of our lack of freedom. If we loved more, love would give our lives infinite dimensions, and we would no longer feel so hemmed in.” Finally, he concludes, “People who haven’t learned how to love will always feel like victims; they will feel restricted wherever they are. But people who love never feel restricted.”
If there was one area of my life where I sometimes feel “restricted” as I partake in a seemingly “banal reality,” it’s for two hours every Tuesday morning in our parish hall when I’m asked to call bingo numbers for our senior population. Now let the record show, I think those folks are great people and I look forward to seeing each one of them every week. The last thing I want is to make it sound like I feel that I have to “put up with them.” I could just as easily have ragged on having to attend Finance meetings, etc. We all have our own “bingos”; that is, the things that come up on a daily basis which we wouldn’t normally feel like choosing on our own but are asked to participate in/remain faithful to. Maybe your “bingo” today was attending a seminar for work or changing your crying baby’s diaper at 3 am.
As a twenty-four-year-old, I have lots of energy, motivation, hope, and ideas. I want to be out on the streets evangelizing people and praying with them. I want to prepare a talk on the Scriptures in order to inspire all our parishioners to give their hearts more fully to Christ. I want to be playing with the kids at recess at our Catholic school right across the street so I can try to be a good role model and help the young men see that seminarians are somewhat normal. Thus, it oftentimes feels “restricting” to have to sit down and yell “O-73” while I put other projects I’d like to be more involved in (and which I sometimes unfairly assess as being more “noble” and “valuable”) on hold.
I’m seeing more and more that the key to unshackling this feeling of restriction in these situations is exactly what Fr. Philippe proposes: love. Not just any old sense of the word “love”; rather, a love which is truly oriented toward willing the good of others. A love which does not count the cost. A love which requires that my own desires and my own will must die. That’s the kind of love which, as Philippe puts it, “transfigures everything and touches the most banal realities with a note of infinity.” Whenever I feel “restricted” at bingo, I’m reminded that it’s because I do not yet love those individuals perfectly (and probably won’t until heaven). Instead of throwing in the towel as I realize I’ll never be able to love them perfectly, I can very simply ask today for the grace of an increase in and purifying of my love for them.
This concept is also essential for all married couples. A beautifully written article, which went viral last year, described how one man realized that marriage wasn’t for him; instead, he discovered that marriage is for the one he was marrying. He writes, “a true marriage (and true love) is never about you. It’s about the person you love—their wants, their needs, their hopes, and their dreams. Selfishness demands, ‘What’s in it for me?’, while Love asks, ‘What can I give?’” This kind of selflessness and self-sacrificial love did anything but cause the author to feel “restricted” in his marriage or like a victim who never gets to do what he wants. On the contrary, he attests to experiencing the joy of receiving the self-sacrificial love his bride mutually desires to share with him.
In a world where less and less people are believing that authentic love and committed relationships are truly possible, we need witnesses of heroic love. In a world which preaches radical autonomy and keeping all your options open (which, ironically, leads to a kind of enslavement) we need witnesses of authentic interior freedom. This heroic love, which springs forth from authentic interior freedom, very often requires a death to our own wills and a desire to bring that love into whatever circumstances we find ourselves in. It doesn’t sound glorious, yet that is exactly the kind of “hidden” heroism which all of us are called to partake in and which will help provide the peace we all desire.
Priests like St. Maximillian Kolbe and Fr. Emil Kapaun are inspiring, but I’m learning to also be inspired by the “hidden heroes” in my life: men and women of every vocation who seek to love selflessly at each moment of their day. Men and women who enter into their own versions of “bingo” without dragging their feet and sighing for all to hear, but who pour forth their hearts in a self-sacrificial love which, whether it seems like it at the time or not, “transfigures everything and touches the most banal realities with a note of infinity.”