Today’s first reading (read here) reveals a magnificent truth that is embedded deep in the heart of Christ Crucified: the faithful love of one, offered to God on behalf of the faithless many, can carry those many to salvation.
I think here of the story of the paralytic carried to Jesus by the bold faith of four men:
Many gathered together so that there was no longer room for them, not even around the door, and Jesus preached the word to them. They came bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. Unable to get near Jesus because of the crowd, they opened up the roof above him. After they had broken through, they let down the mat on which the paralytic was lying. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Child, your sins are forgiven.” (Mk. 2:1-5)
I think also of St. Paul’s saying regarding Christians married to unbelievers,
…For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. (1 Cor. 7:14)
And then again, I think of the saying of St. Seraphim of Sarov:
Acquire the Holy Spirit of peace, and thousands around you will be saved.
Like the famous “butterfly effect,” we must remember that our own life of unsung fidelity, of unrequited love, of hidden sacrifice offered to God on the altar of the heart works, in God’s wonderful design, far more good than we will ever know in this life. Nothing is wasted in this economy of salvation — no tear goes unnoticed (cf. Psalm 56:8), no tiny deed done with love is without effect. St. Thérèse expresses this well:
I prefer the monotony of obscure sacrifice to all ecstasies. To pick up a pin for love can convert a soul.
But I must say that the most extraordinary example of this truth for me is a story of Elisabeth Leseur that I first heard back in 1988, as told by Archbishop Fulton Sheen. I will share this story here as Sheen himself recounted it:
Just at the turn of the century, there was a woman married in Paris, just a good, ordinary Catholic girl, to an atheist doctor, Dr. Felix Leseur. He attempted to break down the faith of his wife and she reacted and began studying her faith. In 1905, she was taken ill and tossed on a bed of constant pain until August 1914. When she was dying, she said to her husband, “Felix, when I am dead, you will become a Catholic and a Dominican priest.”
“Elizabeth, you know my sentiments. I’ve sworn hatred of God, I shall live in the hatred and I shall die in it.”
She repeated her words and passed away. She died in her husband’s arms at the early age of 47.
Rummaging through her papers, Felix found her will. She wrote:
“In 1905, I asked almighty God to send me sufficient sufferings to purchase your soul. On the day that I die, the price will have been paid. Greater love than this no woman has than she who lay down her life for her husband.”
Dr. Leseur, the atheist, dismissed her will as the fancies of a pious woman. He decided to write a book against Lourdes. He went down to Lourdes to write against Our Lady.
However, as he looked up into the face of the statue of Mary, he received the great gift of faith. So total, so complete was it, that he never had to go through the process of juxtaposition and say, “how will I answer this or that difficulty?”
He saw it all. At once.
The then reigning pontiff was Benedict XV. Then came World War I. Hearing of the conversion of Dr. Leseur, Pope Benedict XV sent for him. Dr. Leseur went in the company of Fr. Jon Vinnea, orator of Notre Dame. Dr. Leseur recounted his conversion and said that he wanted to become a Dominican priest. Holy Father said, “I forbid you. You must remain in the world and repair the harm which you have done.”
The Holy Father then talked to Fr. Vinnea and then again to Dr. Leseur and said:
“I revoke my decision. Whatever Fr. Vinnea tells you to do, you may do.”
In the year 1924, during Lent, I, Fulton J. Sheen, made my retreat in the Dominican monastery in Belgium. Four times each day, and 45 minutes in length, I made my retreat under the spiritual guidance of Father Felix Leseur of the Order of Preachers, Catholic Dominican priest, who told me this story.