Once we arrive at the moment when we see that we are emerging from the tomb of the pandemic, we are faced with the tremendous responsibility of reconstituting our Church and even beyond that: committing ourselves to help the Church grow. This may seem to be a big ‘ask’: Should we not just be happy to start things again and not be worried about growth? This is the temptation to mediocrity that always plagues great organizations.
There is a law regarding organisms: they either grow or they die. We must continue to develop and grow or face the prospect of dying as a Church and parish. We cannot allow that in any way. We must go forward and commit ourselves to work and development, and not be content with stagnation, or decline.
This requires a great deal of enthusiasm about doing the work of God. Enthusiasm comes naturally when we begin a work that we want to master. When I started learning to play golf, I was on fire to master it. I went to driving ranges. I watched professional golfers on TV. I tried to go out on the links whenever I had a day off. But golf is hard, very hard. As my friends showed no interest in the game, and as I struggled to at least be moderately proficient in it, I lost some of the energy I had in the beginning. If I had stayed with it, maybe finding a group of other golfers that I could have fun with, I may have become a golfer (albeit of middling ability). I would have had to sustain my original enthusiasm which came naturally, with a more studied and sustained enthusiasm born of decision and hard work. But it did not happen.
The same process is involved in the realm of the spiritual. We feel the natural enthusiasm when we come home from a great retreat or after an inspiring talk or homily. But then real life takes over and we must buttress our initial natural enthusiasm with habits of virtue which would sustain us as the days turn to months and to years.
So that when we speak about the virtue of zeal, we must include in the obvious meaning of that natural enthusiasm, a more studied and habitual working of virtue that will sustain the zeal.
Included in this and on a very important level is also the virtue of prudence. Zeal without prudence can easily turn into fanaticism. In our own day, we have seen the sorry and frightening example of terrorists who in their zealous but imprudent behavior have used faith to kill, maim and harass the innocent. And this in the name of God! Obviously, this sort of zeal is demonic and an insult to the care and love that God shows to His creation. Zeal must always have an intelligent and humble basis for its action. Otherwise, it is just another form of pride and vanity.
Zeal for the things of the Lord and for accomplishing His sacred Will can also be compromised by the lessening of the energy of enthusiasm. We can get distracted by the many possibilities we have in a free society to do what we want to do. We can be seduced into inaction by the call to comfort that is constantly praised by the propaganda of advertising. We can follow this call to ‘be good to yourself’ that seems to be incessant in our heavily commercial environment and descend step by step into boredom and finally into depression. We can theologically move away from obedience to Church teaching to a home-grown compromised adherence to my own opinion, calling it the ultimate authority of conscience.
The taking apart of a true and holy use of zeal are by varied means but all end up at the same place: unbelief. In this static state, all the energy is gone and we have been won over by the prince of darkness and of lies. This happens often in our day as people stare blankly into their many screens that reflect their interior emptiness.
Even though there are only a few references to Our Blessed Lady in the Gospels, when she is mentioned, it is full of spiritual meaning. Dante knew that. Every level of Purgatory in his epic poem has an example from the life of Mary that instructs the souls in purgation of the opposite virtue to their dominant sin.
For zeal, we have Mary ‘going in haste’ to minister at the house of Elizabeth, helping her with her birthing of John the Baptist. Once the angel Gabriel told her of the marvels being done by God to her kinswoman Elizabeth, Mary set out in haste to help her. That haste was a sign of her zeal. The angel did not tell her to do this. She elected to put aside her own pregnancy and make the 80-mile trip on foot to be there for her cousin. And she stayed with her for 3 months!
Zeal, when properly directed, is a powerful sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit of God that accomplishes all things with joy and promptness.
“Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.” – Romans 12:11