Edna Costello was one of those irreplaceable women who seem to appear in every parish. She was the most active member of the altar society, the parish council, the Bible study, marriage preparation classes, and the right to life group. You could find her in church every morning, a half-hour before Mass. She would still be there for another hour after the Mass was over: making her thanksgiving, tidying up the pews, praying her Rosary, arranging flowers, and making the Stations of the Cross.
During the day Edna did good deeds. If anyone in the parish was seriously ill, she would know about it within a matter of hours, and send flowers or visit the hospital room. She would bring meals to shut-ins and place phone calls to lonely widows. On a few occasions she even tactfully asked some of the wealthier members of the parish if they could spare a few dollars for a family that had fallen behind on the mortgage payments.
Then in the evenings, more often than not she would be back at church again, this time for a meeting of one of the many parish organizations that she dominated.
Now if this description makes you think that Edna was saint, you should realize that many – even most – of the parishioners found her insufferable. And she certainly did have her faults. She could be a bit of a busybody. She was better at talking than listening. She was definitely pushy. But no one would ever deny that Edna Costello tried her best to be a good Catholic. And because she was such a serious, active Catholic, many people followed her lead.
Take Tom Brown for example. The Brown family lived just a few doors down from the little house where Edna lived after her husband’s death. When he was just twelve years old, Tom became intrigued by the sight of a little woman who marched past his front window every morning at 6:15, in rain or shine. “If she can go to Mass every day,” he asked himself, “why can’t I?” Soon he too was a fixture at the morning Mass and Tom was not alone. For every jaded neighbor who laughed to himself when Edna began passing out holy cards, there was another more sensitive soul who would take the card, and begin to develop a habit of prayer.
Years passed and age took its toll, Edna moved to a smaller home in another town. Within a matter of months she had become the backbone of a different parish. For years she carried out all the same functions in a new location.
Then at last, just before she reached the age of ninety, Edna was diagnosed with cancer. She learned of the illness during Holy Week, and thought that was appropriate. She continued her usual activities for as long as she could; doing the best she could to ignore her fatigue and pain. But on the day after Christmas she collapsed in church, and was rushed to the hospital.
The doctors were able to revive her, and for two days her conditions steadily improved. But on the third morning she took a sudden turn for the worse, and the doctors realized that she had only a matter of hours to live. At Edna’s insistence, the nurses began to look for a priest.
But there was a complication. A huge blizzard had hit the town that morning, and traffic was paralyzed. The local pastor had rushed out early in the morning, hoping to get a few last-minute errands done before the snow arrived; he miscalculated, however, and was now stuck in a snow bank several miles away, unlikely to return before nightfall. No other priest lived close enough to the hospital to make through the snow on time.
Edna was drifting in and out of consciousness, but when she was awake she was lucid. She was hounding the staff: “Have you found a priest for me yet?”
Fortunately, someone remembered hearing that a young priest was spending his vacation at his sister’s home just a few blocks from the hospital. The nurses tracked him down, and the young priest quickly agreed to come bring the sacraments to a dying woman.
When he entered the room, the priest saw a tiny gray haired woman asleep in her bed. He thought he would awaken her gently by whispering her name. But when he saw the name listed on the chart at the foot of her bed, he blurted it out loud: “Edna Costello!”
Edna opened her eyes wheezing as she said, “Oh, Father, thank God you’re here!” “Thank God you’re here,” said Father Tom Brown. “You’re the reason I’m a priest!”
Now I’ve told this vocation story because I think today’s Gospel is also a vocation story, Mary’s vocation. Mary’s life was turned upside down, God was asking something of her that she never would have expected and this greatly troubled her. Mary’s heart experienced fear. All of us whether married, single, priest or religious sister may at one time or another experience fear. Was Edna ever fearful during her marriage? Was she fearful when there were struggles or arguments or misunderstandings? Was Edna fearful when her husband died making her a widow? Was Edna fearful as she neared death? Did fear ever arise as Tom first discerned the priesthood, did fear arise in the Seminary, and did fear ever arise in the parish? Do we have fears about the life we are called to live in our Christian vocations of marriage, single life, priesthood, or religious?
God doesn’t reveal himself through fear, pressure, or confusion. This is where the spirit against Christ reveals himself. The spirit against Christ makes us afraid, not God. This spirit against Christ uses fear, pressure, and confusion to draw us away from following God. This spirit against Christ can come from us, the world, or the evil one. But the constant message of God is not to be afraid. We hear this message of “Be not afraid” 21 times in the gospels. The Angel Gabriel Immediately tells Mary “Be not afraid” letting her know that fear is not from God. Pope St. John Paul II also said the very same thing knowing fear is the tactic used by the spirit against Christ to discourage a person from doing the will of God.
God has plans for each of us. These plans may call for great changes in our lives, just as they did for Mary. God our Father wants to grace us so that we can do great things for him. But we’ll see these great things happen only to the extent that we listen to him and keep our hearts set on him. If we let ourselves get distracted, we risk missing what he wants us to do. But when we let Jesus live in our hearts, we will find ourselves doing his will. Our Lord tells us through the prophet Jeremiah, “I know well the plans I have in mind for you…plans for your welfare, not for woe! Plans to give you a future full of hope.” God’s plans for us are better than what we could come up with on our own. If we want to know the blessings of God’s plans we have to be open to them.
Mary was troubled at the message of the Angel but she responded to the grace to trust. She knew that God was good. She knew God was loving and that God would never abandon her. With these truths she reasoned that she could accept God’s plan and believe that he would provide for her. May we do the same.
Let us never be afraid to live out our vocation to its fullest. Who knows how God will use us to inspire another person to their own vocation. People are watching us so let us, like Mary, be willing to bear Christ wherever we go. Let each of us say to our Lord, “May it be done to me according to your word.”
Let us be great Saints,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley