Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time at Mississippi Abbey
“Love your enemies.” Winston Churchill and Lady Astor were near enemies. Lady Astor was the first woman elected to the British House of Commons. Churchill complained that a female in Parliament was like a woman entering a men’s rest room. That started a whole series of biting exchanges between them. One day Lady Astor hosted a costume party. Churchill was wondering what disguise would suit him. She suggested, “Why don’t you come sober?” He didn’t. So, she embarrassed him before everyone saying, “Mr. Prime Minister, you’re drunk.” He replied in a louder voice, “Lady Astor, you’re ugly. Tomorrow I’ll be sober, but you’ll still be ugly!” She said caustically, “If you were my husband, I’d put arsenic in your coffee.” He retorted, “Madam, if I were your husband, I’d drink it.”
Jesus said, “Love your enemies.” In a random group of fifty people, about five will really like you and be your friends. About five others won’t like you at all, and probably never will. The other forty really don’t care one way or the other. But wonderful things happen when our love reaches out to this larger number of people, the stranger and the foreigner, people of other faiths and colors who enter our lives.
Such is the story of a young priest named Fr. Caruana.1 It was Dec, 1902. He was the first customer in a little store of Jewish immigrants, a newlywed couple named Esther and Solomon Ueberall. Father’s face was as somber as his black suit. “Why are you so sad?” they asked. He said that his church would be closed unless he paid a $500 debt. He didn’t have the money. They replied, “No, no, that must not happen in America. Your house of worship must stay open. We will get the money for you.” So they pawned their wedding gifts and their rings for this stranger of another faith. They begged from relatives and friends until they raised $500. From then on, every Monday, Fr. Caruana came with his small Sunday collection to pay them back. Over the next eighteen years their friendship deepened. Then Fr. Caruana received a new assignment, and Esther’s husband, Solomon, died suddenly of a heart attack. Another twenty years passed and Hitler marched into Austria, her husband’s place of birth. His relatives began sending letters to Esther, begging her to help them escape the death camps by getting visas to America.
Esther obtained visas for as many as possible until the quotas were filled. In desperation she went to Washington DC and learned that refugees could still find sanctuary in Cuba if a prominent person there would sign for them. Esther went to the Catholic Church that she and her husband had saved from closing. She asked for a letter of introduction to the bishop in Cuba. The pastor wrote the letter, and also sent a cable to announce her coming. When the plane landed in Havana, Esther went down the steps and was handed a bouquet of roses. Looking up she was met by the archbishop of Cuba smiling warmly. She was puzzled until he said, “Esther, don’t you remember me?” It was Father Caruana. He was now an archbishop and was sent to Cuba as the papal nuncio. She collapsed with tears into his arms. With his help many more Jewish families escaped to Cuba where the archbishop sheltered and fed them until they could find new homes. They were saved from the Holocaust because years before a young Jewish couple gave their love to a complete stranger of another faith.
It’s daunting to love our enemies, but isn’t it also a giant task to love the larger number of people around us who are neither enemies nor friends? Whose heart is that large? How can we learn to love so many people? Cardinal Newman writes, “We begin by loving our family and friends. … By submitting to their wishes though contrary to our own, by bearing with their infirmities, by overcoming their occasional waywardness with kindness, by dwelling on their excellences … and so we form in our hearts that beginning of charity which is small at first, but like the mustard seed will grow to overshadow the earth.” 2 It is the Holy Spirit who helps us to really love our family and friends, and to reach out to the multitude of people around us, and to give even our enemies a cup of coffee not laced with arsenic but with sugar.
- Guideposts, 1974, p. 22
- John Henry Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons, vol. 2, Longmans, Green and Co, 1908, p. 52