One of the things I love most about being Catholic is the ability to practice my faith anywhere, anytime. I’ve attended Mass in nearly every state and country that I’ve visited. Sometimes it has been in a foreign language, and while listening to the homily can be a challenge, I know the parts of the Mass so well I can easily follow along, responding quietly in English. I also always carry my Magnificat with me so I can read the readings and prayers, no matter where I am.
While visiting a friend in beautiful Fort Myers, Florida, I attended Sunday Mass at the Church of the Resurrection of our Lord. The celebrant was Fr. Oliver Toner, an old (his adjective, not mine) Irish priest, whose lilting accent and demeanor reminded me of one of my favorite priests of all times, Msgr. Oliver McGready, another Irish priest I was blessed to have as pastor of my parish church for over ten years.
The Irish are always ready with a good story to make a point, teach a lesson, or simply just to entertain. Fr. Toner was no exception. The readings for the Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time were from Genesis and Colossians, with the gospel coming from Luke. The church bulletin advised that the day’s readings were to “address the importance of persistent prayer.” It’s no surprise that this message was especially poignant, given the unrest and discord in the upcoming presidential election as well as the recent spate of violence and brutal killings in my home state of Louisiana, in Florida, in Texas, in Germany, and just recently, in France, where an elderly priest was beheaded while celebrating morning Mass.
Fr. Toner’s homily focused in on a specific type of prayer, not one of asking but of thanking. His advice was to thank God for the negatives in our lives, not just the positives. In his typically-Irish way of using homey, intimate stories, he illustrated this with several examples. One was that of being called out to give last rites to a woman who had suffered a massive heart attack. The doctor, a golfing buddy of his, advised him that the prognosis was dire as the heart attack had damaged three-quarters of the woman’s heart. On his way out of the emergency room, he was approached by the woman’s husband who was seeking comfort and solace. Fr. Toner told him to pray, and in his prayer, try thanking God for his wife’s heart attack. The man thought it was crazy to do so but felt he had nothing to lose so he did. Months later, Fr. Toner was visited by the man and his wife, who had indeed recovered from the heart attack.
Fr. Toner told several other stories with similar threads, one including a blocked sewer pipe, which brought a laugh from the congregation. He didn’t just tell stories, however, he backed them up with a powerful passage from scripture, 1 Thessalonians 5:18. “In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.” In other words, thank God for everything, positive and negative.
On the surface, this seems counter to what we have been taught in our prayer life. As a teacher, when I pray with my students, whether it be before a field trip, before a big exam, or before a rehearsal for the school play, I always tell them to thank God for the blessings He has bestowed on them and only then should they ask for what they need or want. Fr. Toner offered a different template for prayer, one which I will bring back to school with me this fall: ACTS. This simple acronym focuses our prayer efforts in four easy steps. “A” is for acknowledge God as our Father and worship Him in adoration. “C” is for confession of our sins which we bring to Him for healing and mercy. “T” is for thanksgiving, but Fr. Toner shared that perhaps we should think of trust instead, putting our trust in Him to help us through our ordeals. It is at this stage of prayer that Fr. Toner suggested we thank God for the negatives in our lives. Finally, “S” is for supplication, where we turn to God with our requests.
Why should we thank Him for the problems in our lives, for the large and small crosses we feel we have been given to bear? Fr. Toner was ready with the answer to this. He wrapped up his homily by telling the congregation that God is waiting for us to give Him control, for choosing obedience over free will, for allowing Him to embrace the evil and transform it. Fr. Toner said simply, “Bring God into the storms of your life. God can surprise you.”