Matthew 16:21-27
Rosary Stories by Rev. Jerry J. Pokorsky
Reprinted with the permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"

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Matthew wrote to show that Christ was the
Messiah and fulfilled the Jewish prophecies.

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.  Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, "God forbid, Lord!  No such thing shall ever happen to you."  He turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan!  You are an obstacle to me.  You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do."  Then Jesus said to his disciples, "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.  For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.  What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?  Or what can one give in exchange for his life?  For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father's glory, and then he will repay everyone according to his conduct."

Perhaps in moments of weakness (or maybe just honesty), it is easy to take the side of St. Peter who, in this week’s Gospel, attempts to dissuade Christ from going up to Jerusalem to suffer and die at the hands of the elders and chief priests.  Generally we are not the stuff of suffering, much less that of martyrdom.  Yet suffer we must in our own respective ways.  From the weakness and infirmities of old age to the often unspeakable sorrows and heartbreaks of life, the older we get the more we understand the lament of Psalm 90: “Life is 70 years, 80 for those who are strong, and most of these are emptiness and pain.”

Courage is a gift of the Holy Spirit, of course, received especially on the day of our confirmation.  But as a practical matter, how do we tap into the fortitude required to endure the trails of life without losing heart?  What is the key to acquiring the strength to suffer with Christ?  The lives of the saints are exemplary, but there are contemporary models of Christian courage as well.

After the fall of Saigon, thousands of Vietnamese fled their homeland in boats.  The boats and their occupants were subject to pirate attacks, robberies and refusals to ensure safe passage to refugee camps.  When prodded into describing her family’s escape from Saigon and asked to account for their great strength of character to endure, one matron among these “boat people” produced a worn-out rosary from her pocket.  The rosary, with its prayers imploring the  maternal protection of Our Lady, is a treasure of devotion that is cherished throughout the world.

Time and again, we see devotion to the rosary as the means of discovering the strength to endure.  One World War II Marine described his experiences in the bloody battle of Tarawa in 1943 that cost nearly 6,000 American and Japanese lives in less than three days of fighting.  The Marine’s landing craft was struck by artillery shells.  A dying Marine in this “crocodile” boat sat straight puffing a cigarette, with his beating heart visible through the wound in his back.  Another Marine appeared, at first glance, to be holding a bouquet of flowers.  But it proved to be a bloody bouquet of blood vessels from his shattered hand.  Such horrific descriptions are repeated all too often today in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.  Again, when asked to give an accounting for his strength to endure, producing a worn rosary from his pocket, the aging Marine attributed his survival to the maternal solicitude of Mary.

But the rosary is not an instrument of magic nor does it necessarily guarantee physical safety.  In 1940 the Soviets invaded Poland from the east as the Nazis invaded from the west.  Anticipating the eventual defeat of the Nazis, the Soviets, in a cold-blooded attempt to eliminate the “best and the brightest” of Poland, executed about 22,000 Polish Prisoners-of-war military officers and citizens in the infamous Katyn forest.  For decades, the Communists and their leftist allies in the West denied the crime, blaming instead the Nazis.  The true story of the atrocity is depicted in a chilling movie produced in 2007, “Katyn” (very much worth the rental cost).

In a poignant scene in the movie, one of the Polish officers, anticipating his fate, confides to a fellow prisoner that he intends to commit suicide.  He is dissuaded from doing so as a friend in truth gently tucks a rosary into his palm.  The rosary reappears later in the film, draped over the officer’s cold stiff hand as his Soviet executioners add his body to a pile of corpses similarly executed.  The filmmaker’s message is clear: “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul.” (Mt 10:28)

Recently an elderly parishioner succumbed to cancer.  Her daughter reported that in the final days the woman refused morphine and other pain killers.  Her time was coming and she wanted to enter into eternity with a clear mind.  The mother’s only demand was that her rosary be placed near her hands at all times.  So she lived.  So she died.  The woman knew the rosary guarantees the presence of the mother who loves us and cares for us as she cared for her divine Son in her arms when He was a child and when He was taken down from the cross.  And from this assurance the dying woman, as innumerable Christians before her, took great strength and consolation.

At funeral vigils it is common to see the hands of the deceased holding a rosary.  It is a beautiful sign of devotion.  But it is also a sign of strength and endurance.  Christ rebuked St. Peter when Peter was repelled by the prospect of suffering with, “Get thee behind me, Satan!”  Devotion to the rosary is an eloquent way of living that prayer and discovering the fortitude to face the trails of life, great or small.

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