Today’s gospel gives us an end-of-the-world feeling but Jesus doesn’t give us any specific information as to when it will happen. He does, however, warn us to be alert and to be on the lookout. He doesn’t want us to live carelessly or superficially but at the same time he doesn’t want us to get into a panic about the end of the world.
What Jesus announces in today’s Gospel isn’t harmless: “There will be hardship.” But when it’ll happen we aren’t sure because we aren’t given any dates. And even if we aren’t visited by earthquakes, famines, or pestilences, smaller things may occur: our health may fail, marriages may struggle, death will take away our loved ones, businesses may fail, and jobs are sometimes lost. These are hard and when they happen to us they can feel like the end of the world. So how do we deal with it? Jesus gives the answer and his reply is stand firm, trust in me; I will not let you fall. I will give you the wisdom, I will give you the words I will give you the strength. “By your perseverance you will secure your lives.”
In our Gospel we heard, “Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom. There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place; and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky.” Hearing this reminds us of so many horrific events that have occurred throughout the centuries even up to our own day. I have a story from a time period of great suffering when the world around many people was ending. And it’s a story about a woman named Irena Sendler. And for those whose world was ending she acted as the heart, hands, and voice of Christ.
Irena Sendler was a Catholic social worker at the time of the German invasion of Poland and was a senior administrator in the Welfare Department. In 1942 the German army herded hundreds of thousands of Jews into a 16-block area that came to be known as the Warsaw Ghetto. The Ghetto was sealed and all the Jewish families behind its walls awaited a certain death. Irena was so outraged by what was happening that she wanted to fight back so she joined Zegota, the Council for Aid to Jews, organized by the Polish underground resistance movement.
With her connections in the Welfare Department Irena was able to get a pass in order to gain access into the Ghetto. She visited everyday bringing food, medicine, and clothing. But 5,000 people were dying every month from starvation and disease. She had to do more, she thought, and that’s when she decided to help the children get out. Irena at first began smuggling the children out one at a time in an ambulance. But that was too slow so she recruited workmen to help with the smuggling. Children were taken out in gunnysacks, body bags, toolboxes, potato sacks, and even coffins. Some entered a church in the Ghetto which had two entrances. One entrance opened into the Ghetto, the other opened into the Aryan side of Warsaw. The children entered the church as Jews and exited as Christians. Irena accomplished much of her incredible deeds with the assistance of the Church. She once said, “I sent most of the children to religious establishments; I knew I could count on the sisters.” No one ever refused to take a child from her.
With her connections in the Welfare Department Irena was able to give each child a forged identity document. They were placed in homes, orphanages, and convents and Irena carefully noted, in coded form, the child’s original name and his or her new identity. She kept the only record of their true identities in jars buried beneath an apple tree in a neighbor’s back yard.
Eventually the Nazis became aware of Irena’s activities and in October of ’43 she was arrested, imprisoned, and tortured. Her legs and feet were broken but they couldn’t break her spirit. She trusted. Irena was hated for doing the work of our Lord. Yet she trusted our Lord knowing He would help her through it all. He would not let her fall. Sentenced to death Irena was saved at the last moment when members of the underground resistance bribed one of the Gestapo agents to halt the execution. She escaped from prison but for the rest of the war she was pursued by the Nazis.
After the war she dug up the jars and used the notes to track down the 2,500 children she had saved and tried to reunite them with their families. However, most of their families were dead. Irena never considered herself a hero and always said, “I could have done more.”
Because of our Baptism we can say along with St. Paul as he writes to the Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me.” And for those children whose worlds were ending Irena was Christ’s heart, hands, and voice. Our Lord will help us through any difficulty, any hardship giving us his wisdom and strength, maybe even using you in the process to help another.
Let us imitate Irena, probably not on the same grand scale, but let us trust in our Lord when someone’s world seems to be ending and let us be as Christ forgetting about ourselves and acting the way Christ himself would act, because maybe God is using you to be as his heart, hands, and voice.
Peace and all good,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley