Calling our Country to Repentance

After all of the excitement of the Christmas season, we are settling back down now into Ordinary Time, that time of the year when we focus not necessarily on the extraordinary events of the history of salvation, but rather on how we are called to be a part of these great mysteries, on the ordinary, everyday path of discipleship. In these first few weeks of Ordinary Time, the Gospels are introducing our Lord’s public ministry. Last week, it was John the Baptist telling us, “Behold the Lamb of God!” This beautiful proclamation, repeated at each Holy Mass by the priest as he elevates the Sacred Host and invites us to banquet of the Lamb, points out Christ to each one of us.

Next Sunday, our Lord will begin teaching in the synagogues. We will have the chance to learn from Him as we delve into what He is teaching His disciples – that is, His followers, his students. Today, though, we have the very beginning of our Lord’s public ministry. He begins by calling to Himself a group of men who will go on to be the leaders of His Church, the first of the Apostles. He gives them a sense of urgency: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand.” We hear that sense of urgency also from St. Paul in today’s epistle: “I tell you, brothers and sisters, the time is running out.” Being a follower of Christ means that we need drop our nets like Simon, Andrew, James, and John did, leaving everything to follow the Lord.

Christ’s call does not begin with a slick advertising campaign. He does not have a catchy theme song or a cleverly phrased slogan. Rather, His call to these new disciples is abrupt and shocking. “Repent!” This hardly seems to be designed to win Him a lot of new friends.

We see something similar in the first reading today. The prophet Jonah sets off walking through the great city of Nineveh. He does not seem to be looking to be very popular either, because he cries out, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed!” Now, if someone were to appear in Goshen tomorrow, walking down Main Street and yelling, “Forty days more and Goshen shall be destroyed!” I would wager to say that our reaction would be rather different than that of the people of Nineveh. We would think this self-appointed prophet was crazy, and we would go on with our lives. I doubt the confession lines would increase that much.

But precisely the opposite happens in Nineveh. The people repent of their sins, they fast, and they put on itchy sackcloth as a penance in reparation for their sins. We have all heard this story of Jonah so many times (you know, the ship, the storm, the whale, etc.) that the miraculous nature of what is going on here could easily be lost on us. Nineveh’s conversion was extremely improbable:

1) Nineveh was a notoriously wicked city. We do not know exactly what kinds of evil they were committing, but we know they were very bad.
2) Nineveh is huge. It would take three days to walk all the way across it. That’s bigger than Chicago or New York. How could one man convert so many people so quickly?
3) Jonah is an improbably successful preacher. This is the same man who just days before was running away from God and ended up in the belly of a big fish. Hardly the makings of a success story.

And yet, despite all the reasons for which Jonah’s call to repentance should not have been successful, it was! Something similar could be said about our Lord. Here we have the simple son of a carpenter, and all of a sudden people are dropping everything to follow Him. Public sinners, tax collectors, women of ill repute, thieves – all are leaving their sinful lives behind in order to follow him: Zacchaeus, St. Matthew, Mary Magdalene, and so many others.

These improbable stories of conversion, of people being willing to repent of their sins in a public and dramatic fashion, call to mind for me a great cause for which repentance is needed in our own day, in our own country. Tomorrow we will celebrate the tragic anniversary of the legalization of abortion in the United States of America, now 45 years ago. This day, as has been the case for many years, we are asked to devote as a day of prayer and fasting, pleading with the Lord for the repentance of our society and our political leaders in order to ensure legal protection for unborn children.

In the face of this yearly occurrence, it could be easy for us to become discouraged. Another year has passed, and another nearly million children have met this cruel fate. But the conversion of Nineveh and the conversion of so many of our Lord’s disciples should be a sign of hope for us, and also a clue to the way forward.

How did Jonah, that most unlikely of prophets, a fearful coward running away from the Lord, become the man who converted the great city of Nineveh? Jonah would not have been able to convert anyone if he himself did not first repent of his own sins. God, in His great wisdom, allowed Jonah to run away, to be unfaithful, because He knew that Jonah would be all the greater of a prophet by coming back to Him, having repented of running away.

That is why tomorrow’s day of prayer and fasting for the unborn is so important. Our Lord tells the disciples at one point in the Gospel: “But this kind [of demon] is not cast out but by prayer and fasting” (Matt 17:21). If we want to be like the prophet Jonah and call our society to repentance for this great sin, then we must also be like him in repenting from the many ways that we have failed to follow God’s call to be disciples.

Our Lord, of course, did not have any sins of which to repent, but before He embarked on His mission of the proclamation of His kingdom and the call to repentance, He spent 40 days in the desert praying and fasting. That is what we are called to imitate tomorrow on this tragic anniversary: Our Lord’s own fasting and prayer.

There is one way, though, that we are not like the Ninevites. When they covered themselves in sackcloth and ashes, they did not know whether God would change His mind and have mercy on them. When we fast and pray, though, we can do so full of the virtue of hope, knowing that God hears our prayers and receives our sacrifices with love, knowing that these actions of ours have the power to win over the hearts of people we have never even met.

In that same spirit of hope, I would like to share with you the stories of some incredible people who have repented of their support of abortion and now fight for the right to life for unborn children:

Maybe you have heard of Norma McCorvey. She was the “Roe” of Roe vs. Wade. At the age of 22, having dropped out of high school and, being pregnant for the third time, she was recruited by pro-abortion lawyers to challenge Texas’s laws on abortion. Although she never personally had an abortion, she witnessed the deaths of hundreds of babies at abortion providers where she worked. She eventually became horrified by the fact of what abortion really is, and later became Catholic. She is now a popular pro-life speaker.

Last year at the March for Life in Washington, D.C., I heard from Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood clinic director. She thought that her work at Planned Parenthood was helping women, but after witnessing an abortion via ultrasound, she walked out of the clinic and never looked back. She now runs a charity that helps abortion workers leave that horrible industry.

A similar story is that of Carol Everett, who owned multiple abortion clinics from 1977 to 1983, where an estimated 35,000 unborn children were aborted. When asked what caused her conversion to the pro-life cause, she attributes it to the prayers of others. “Every time pro-life activists are standing in front of the clinic,” she said, “you are holding a light on inside that clinic.”

My favorite example, though, is Dorothy Day, the American journalist, social-activist convert who lived from 1897 to 1990. After her conversion to Catholicism, she co-founded the Catholic Worker movement in 1933, living the philosophy of holy poverty and practicing works of mercy among the poor for 50 years. Before becoming Catholic, though, when she was 21 years old, she was living a sinful life, found herself pregnant, and succumbed to her boyfriend’s pressure to abort the baby. In her autobiography, she explained, “I wanted the baby but I wanted Lionel [her boyfriend] more. So I had the abortion and I lost them both.” She eventually was baptized, accepting Christ’s forgiveness of her sins, and two years ago the Church began the process of considering her for sainthood.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, our prayers and fasting – especially on tomorrow’s tragic 45th anniversary of the legalization of abortion in the United States – really can make a difference. Just as Jonah repented of His sins and then was able to convert the great city of Nineveh, and just as our Lord fasted in the desert for 40 days before announcing the immanent coming of the Kingdom if we repent, pray, and fast God will use us to bring an end to this terrible scourge upon our country. I hope that you will dedicate yourselves tomorrow to this same spirit of prayer and fasting. Gather with your family to pray the rosary together, come to Mass here at 5:30 in the afternoon, or have a simple bowl of soup instead of your regular supper. All of these acts of love could win hearts for Christ and save the lives of thousands or even millions of unborn children.

The odds might seem stacked against us, but we should remember our Lady’s words at Fatima: “In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph.” Through prayer and fasting, the Lord wants to use us to bring about the repentance of our country.

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