Father Fio scaled the thick wall of hopelessness, and experienced how God writes straight on crooked lines
At the age of nineteen, after two years of college, I joined the Jesuit novitiate in Mumbai, and four years later, after my religious studies, I was sent back to St. Xavier’s College to complete a degree in chemistry. I was happy and proud about my future career as a college professor! I studied hard and did very well in the preliminary examinations. However, at the final examinations in 1968, my mind suddenly went blank, and I couldn’t remember a word of what I had studied! Far from covering myself with glory, I failed the exam! I felt confused and humiliated, and angry. “How could God do this to me?” I asked.
However, there was worse in store for me. I prayed and studied more determinedly and appeared again for the chemistry examination some months later. Everything had gone well during my preparations, yet in the examination hall my mind went as blank as before and I failed a second time! By now I had entered a real crisis of faith. I asked myself, “Is there really a God? If he is a loving God, how could he do this to me?” Slowly, I began to give up prayer. My religious life was in crisis and I began to lead a worldly life.
Meanwhile, in 1970, I prepared for a third attempt at the chemistry examination. Before entering the hall, I whispered, “God, I know you don’t love me, so there’s no point in my asking you for help. But I hope you still love my mother, so please answer her prayer!” But for the third time the same thing happened, and I failed. I was then sent to learned Jesuit psychologists who gave me many tests and eventually diagnosed my problem as having “developed a psychological block to chemistry.” But none of them could tell me how to get rid of the block!
Two years after my third failure, having successfully completed religious studies in philosophy, when I was preparing for a fourth attempt at the chemistry exam, “amazing grace” unexpectedly flowed down upon me from the hands of the great and good God who had not given up on me! On 11 February 1972, I suddenly felt moved to kneel in my room before my vows-crucifix to surrender my life to God.
From the depths of my poverty and nothingness, I found myself crying out: “Lord, I have nothing to offer you! I am a failure, and I have no future! But if you have a plan for my life, if you can use me in some way for your Kingdom, here I am!”
That was my moment of surrender to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and of being “baptized in the Holy Spirit.” I was no longer in the driver’s seat of my life telling the Lord what to do for me; instead, I was asking Him to do with me as He willed.
God’s response was immediate! Even as I knelt there, I clearly heard God say to me, “Fio, you are my beloved son in whom I am well pleased!” Those last words,“well pleased,” made no sense to me at all! If God had scolded me for all those months of unbelief, for giving up on prayer, etc., I would have understood it. But to be affirmed, to be welcomed so lovingly was too much for my small mind to grasp! And yet, deep down in my heart, I felt tremendous joy springing up, a divine consolation. In that moment, I was filled with such exultation that I shouted aloud, “JESUS, YOU ARE ALIVE, ALLELUIA!” This was at a time when the Charismatic Renewal had not yet reached India.
Experiencing the Lord speaking words of love to me completely transformed my life. I now understand that before God’s plans for me could be fulfilled, my ego had to be broken. My strange exam failures did the job! God gave me a new mindset and only then could I begin to appreciate the gratuitous character of salvation in Christ. God’s abundant love for each of us is a gift, for we are saved by grace, through faith, not by our merits.
The direction of my life soon changed! After I finally passed the chemistry exams and received my science degree with honours, my superior made a surprising announcement: “Fio,” they said,“we no longer want you to become a Professor in our College!
You have had a special spiritual experience; go share it with the world!”
You can imagine my surprise at the divine irony of what God had done in my life. Had I passed those exams straight away, for the whole of my priestly life I would have gone daily to the chemistry lab to teach college students how to mix hydrogen and sulphide…and then breathe in that wretched smell!
God indeed had a plan for my life. For 30 years He blessed me with a pioneering servant-leadership role in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal in India and worldwide, enjoying eight of those years in Rome. For the last twenty years, God has used me in the pastoral-biblical ministry as a preacher and writer. By God’s amazing grace, I have happily proclaimed the Good News in over eighty countries to hundreds of thousands of people hungry for God’s word. I have authored eighteen books on biblical spirituality, many of which are translated into several Indian and foreign languages. All this resulted from my embarrassing and demoralizing failure. But God writes straight with crooked lines!
Father Fiorello Mascarenhas SJ is the Chairman of the Catholic Bible Institute, Mumbai. He was the Director and Chairman (1981-1987) of the International Council for Catholic Charismatic Renewal, as resident in Vatican City. Father Mascarenhas was awarded the Doctor of Ministry degree in Biblical Spirituality by the Catholic Theological Union, Chicago.
A few months ago, during a conversation about a “difficult” colleague, my immediate superior remarked: “If I am not able to be a source of solace to such people in my team, then all my spirituality is in vain.” It was a wake-up-call; I had often been in the habit of judging this colleague, so this left me in shame. I realized how badly I had failed to be a true witness to my faith, at my workplace. All of us are surrounded by difficult people, maybe in the form of a nagging spouse, an envious neighbor, an irritating colleague, or a domineering boss. In fact, Jesus dealt with difficult people on a daily basis, giving us the perfect example of compassion. This Lent, let’s be thankful to God for all these difficult people in our lives. Instead of judging and avoiding them, let’s try to be like Jesus. Let’s do to them what Jesus would have done for them if He was in our place. And let’s not forget that it’s not the good people but the difficult people who purify us.
There is a regrettable interpretation of the Cross that has, unfortunately, infected the minds of many Christians. This is the view that the bloody sacrifice of the Son on the cross was “satisfying” to the Father, an appeasement of a God infinitely angry at sinful humanity. In this reading, the crucified Jesus is like a child hurled into the fiery mouth of a pagan divinity in order to assuage its wrath. But what ultimately refutes this twisted theology is the well-known passage from John’s Gospel: “God so loved the world, that he sent his only Son, that all who believe in him might have eternal life.”(3:16) John reveals that it is not out of anger or vengeance or in a desire for retribution that the Father sends the Son, but precisely out of love. God the Father is not some pathetic divinity whose bruised personal honor needs to be restored; rather, God is a parent who burns with compassion for His children who have wandered into danger. Does the Father hate sinners? No, but he hates sin. Does God harbor indignation at the unjust? No, but God despises injustice. Thus, God sends his Son, not gleefully to see him suffer, but compassionately to set things right. Saint Anselm, the great medieval theologian who is often unfairly blamed for the cruel theology of satisfaction, was eminently clear on this score. We sinners are like diamonds that have fallen into the muck. Made in the image of God, we have soiled ourselves through violence and hatred. God, claimed Anselm, could have simply pronounced a word of forgiveness from heaven, but this would not have solved the problem. It would not have restored the diamonds to their original brilliance. Instead, in his passion to reestablish the beauty of creation, God came down into the muck of sin and death, brought the diamonds up, and then polished them off. In so doing, of course, God had to get dirty. This sinking into the dirt—this divine solidarity with the lost—is the “sacrifice” which the Son makes to the infinite pleasure of the Father. It is the sacrifice expressive, not of anger or vengeance, but of compassion. Jesus said that any disciple of His must be willing to take up his cross and follow the Master. If God is self-forgetting love even to the point of death, then we must be such love. If God is willing to break open his own heart, then we must be willing to break open our hearts for others. The cross, in short, must become the very structure of the Christian life.
Q: My Protestant friends say that Catholics believe we need to earn our salvation. They say that salvation is by faith alone and that we can’t add to anything that Jesus already did for us on the Cross. But don’t we have to do good works to make it to Heaven? A: This is a pretty big misunderstanding for both Protestants and Catholics. It may seem to be theological minutiae, but it actually has a huge consequence in our spiritual life. The truth is this: We are saved by living faith—our belief in Jesus Christ that is lived out in our words and actions. We must be clear—we do not need to earn our salvation, as if salvation was a prize if we reach a certain level of good deeds. Consider this: who was the first one to be saved? According to Jesus, it was the Good Thief. While he was being rightly crucified for his evil deeds, he cried out to Jesus for mercy, and the Lord promised him: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43) So, salvation consists in that radical faith, trust, and surrender to what Jesus did on the Cross to purchase mercy. Why is this important? Because many Catholics think that all we have to do to be saved is ‘be a good person’—even if the person doesn’t actually have a living relationship with the Lord. I can’t begin to tell you how many people tell me something like: “Oh, my uncle never went to Mass or prayed, but he was a nice man who did many good things in his life, so I know he’s in Heaven.” While we certainly hope that the uncle is saved by God’s mercy, it isn’t our kindness or good works that save us, but the saving death of Jesus on the Cross. What would happen if a criminal was put on trial for a crime, but he said to the judge, “Your Honor, I did commit the crime, but look at all the other good things I did in my life!” Would the judge let him off? No—he would still have to pay for the crime he committed. Likewise, our sins had a cost—and Jesus Christ had to pay for them. This payment of the debt of sin is applied to our souls through faith. But, faith is not just an intellectual exercise. It must be lived out. As Saint James writes: “Faith without works is dead” (2:24). It’s not enough just to say: “Well, I believe in Jesus, so I can now sin as much as I want.” On the contrary, precisely because we have been forgiven and become heirs to the Kingdom, we must then act like Kingdom-heirs, like sons and daughters of the King. This is very different than trying to earn our salvation. We don’t do good works because we hope to be forgiven—we do good works because we are already forgiven. Our good deeds are a sign that His forgiveness is alive and active in our lives. After all, Jesus tells us: “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” (John 14:15) If a husband loves his wife, he will seek concrete ways to bless her—giving her flowers, doing the dishes, writing her a love note. He would never say: “Well, we’re married, and she knows I love her, so I can now do whatever I want.” Likewise, a soul that has known the merciful love of Jesus will naturally want to please Him. So, to answer your question, Catholics and Protestants are actually much closer on this issue than they know! We both believe that we are saved by faith—by a living faith, which is expressed in a life of good works as a sign of thanksgiving for the lavish, free gift of salvation that Christ won for us on the Cross.
“But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:6) Do you remember hearing these words as a child? They seemed simple enough—just go to your room, close the door, and pray. I remember hearing them and being confused. Simple words, yes, but it just didn’t make sense that we could only say prayers, in our room, by ourselves. But my child-like faith told me to believe these words. As I grew, so did my faith and understanding of this Scripture. I came to realize these beautiful, profound words meant I could go into my room, turn my heart to the Lord, anytime, anywhere. My prayer life blossomed. How wonderful to spend quiet time with our Father and receive His love. Every time I hear these words from Matthew’s Gospel, I appreciate the Lenten season even more. It’s a reminder of God’s love and how much He desires our friendship. Love heals. For me, that’s the reward when I go into my room and pray.
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