Year A – 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Model of Perseverance

[Isa.56:1, 6-7; Rom.11:13-15, 29-32; Mt.15:21-28]

Irving Stone (1903-89) was a popular American author. He wrote historical novels about many famous people, including Michelangelo, Vincent van Gogh, Sigmund Freud and Charles Darwin.

Stone once explained that he was drawn to writing about people who dreamed of achieving something, and then worked for it. But as they did so, they were typically beaten over the head, knocked down, vilified and for years got nowhere.

When they were knocked down, though, they always stood up again.

You couldn’t destroy these people, he said, and eventually they did accomplish something of what they set out to do.

In other words, they persevered. They simply refused to give up.

Winston Churchill was like that. At school he was a poor student, repeating one class three times. One school report even said ‘this boy will never amount to anything,’ and his father feared that he’d never earn a living for himself.

Churchill twice failed his university entrance exam, and he lost the first time he stood for Parliament. However, his determination was unshakable, and he went on to become one of the greatest leaders in history, beating the Nazis in WWII.

Speaking to Oxford University students one day after the war, Churchill simply said, ‘Never give up!’ That was his mantra.

That is also the approach of the Canaanite woman in today’s Gospel. She is determined to help her sick daughter, and begs Jesus for help. But he says no – three times – because he has other priorities. The apostles also try to send her away, but she keeps insisting on Jesus’ help.

In the end, Jesus is so impressed by her perseverance that he says, ‘Woman, you have great faith. Your wish is granted.’ And the child is healed.

The message for us today is clear: keep praying to Jesus, even when things seem hopeless.

The classic example of this is St Monica, the mother of St Augustine. She was born in Thagaste, in modern-day Algeria, and raised as a Christian, but she was given in marriage to a pagan named Patricius.

Monica found Patricius to be a hot-tempered womaniser and a drinker, and it distressed her. But she was patient and every day she prayed for him.

Monica’s mother-in-law moved in with them, and she turned out to be a gossipy and cantankerous woman. Again, Monica suffered, but she prayed for her, too.

Patricius refused to let any of their three children be baptised. Augustine was the oldest, and Monica was disturbed to see him growing up like his father: rebellious, inclined to immoral living, and resistant to her Christian faith. She often cried, but kept praying anyway.

Many years later, when Augustine was 17, Patricius converted and was baptised. He died soon afterwards. His mother also converted to Christianity, but Monica’s problems weren’t over because Augustine continued to live an immoral life. He also adopted heretical beliefs, and for a while she banished him from home.

Then one night in a vision she learned that Augustine would one day return to the faith. That encouraged Monica to stay close and to keep praying for him.

Augustine subsequently escaped to Rome and then to Milan, where he taught. Monica was heartbroken, but she followed him. In Milan, St Ambrose became her spiritual director and he advised her to be patient and to keep praying.

Then one day as Augustine walked through a garden, he heard a child say, ‘Take and read.’ He randomly opened a Bible and his eyes fell on the words, ‘Put on the Lord Jesus Christ’ (Rom.13:13-14).

This moment changed his life. His eyes and heart opened, and to Monica’s great delight he was baptised at the age of 33. But she died soon afterwards.

St Monica’s prayers really were answered, though, because Augustine was ordained a priest at 36, a bishop at 41, and today he is one of the Church’s greatest saints. It’s all because his mother believed in him and prayed constantly for him, even when all seemed hopeless.

Today St Monica is a universal model of patience and perseverance. She is also the patron saint of grieving mothers, difficult marriages and the conversion of relatives.

In his Confessions, St. Augustine wrote, ‘Our task (as Christians) is to make daily progress towards God. Our pilgrimage on earth is a school in which God is the only teacher, and it demands good students, not ones who play truant.’ [i]

Our challenge in this school of life is to graduate with honors.

We will if we stay faithful to Jesus and keep praying , even when things seem hopeless.

[i] St Augustine, Confessions. Penguin, London, 1961. (Most of what we know about St Monica comes from this book).