Today is the memorial of another of our Secular Franciscan saints, St. Pedro de San José Betancur (Anglicized to St. Peter of St. Joseph Betancourt). St. Pedro was canonized in 2002 by Pope John Paul II, and has the distinction of being the first Central American Catholic saint.
Pedro was a shepherd from a poor family in Tenerife, Canary Islands. At age 24, around 1650, he made his way to Guatemala, hoping that a relative could help him find government work. He was destitute when he arrived, but eventually enrolled in the local Jesuit college to study for the priesthood, which had long been his goal. He was not good at his studies, though, and eventually left school after three years.
In 1655, Pedro became a Secular Franciscan and began working with the poor and homeless. In 1658, he opened a hospital for the poor, and later a shelter for the homeless and school for the children of the impoverished. His inspiration led others to join him in caring for the poor. Although Pedro had no wish to found an order, after his death in 1667, his successors were organized into the Bethlehemite Congregation (also known as the Betlemites), which had houses and hospitals throughout Central and South America.
(See below for links)
I always enjoy reading about our Secular Franciscan brothers and sisters, but today I was struck by one sentence in St. Pedro’s short biography in Saint of the Day: “Pedro very much wanted to become a priest, but God had other plans…” That phrase “God had other plans” was one both my parents used, often with a rueful shake of the head. The lives they wound up living were rich and full, but not ones they had planned on, nor were the circumstances of their lives always welcome.
I’ve recently come to some decisions about the direction of my own life that will make for some major changes. It’s taken me a while to get to this point, a long and tiring journey that has frequently been dispiriting. I had plans for my life, after all, and I worked very hard to bring those about. But the circumstances in which I’ve been living out my plans took a decided turn after spending a year in Iraq. It’s taken me the better part of a decade to accept that my aims no longer fit the direction in which my life has been going. Coming to acceptance, by which I mean letting go of my plans, has been difficult.
I can’t help but imagine that Pedro must have had similar feelings when he left school, finally admitting that his long-hoped-for goal of becoming a priest would never be realized. We tend to imbue our saints and blesseds with a sort of stunted emotional life, so that the acceptance of God’s plans for them is one of meek submission. In doing so, we rob them of some of their humanity. I prefer to imagine them feeling the anger, irritation, depression, even despair that is much more common when a person must let go of her or his plans and accept that their life is going in a completely different direction.
Meek, subservient submission is not the same as humble acceptance—my mother always said that God didn’t intend us to be doormats. We have chosen to follow Christ, and part of this is acknowledging that our lives are not wholly our own. We give over a portion of our free will to allow the Lord to use our lives as He sees fit. Isn’t this the meta-lesson that Mary teaches us when she says, “may it be done according to your word” (Lk 1:38)? While we may agree with this conceptually, living it out is more problematic. How do we know what God wants?
There are many gifted writers and clergy who have given us libraries written on the topic of discernment. There’s little, if anything, that I can add to that. I can say, though, that for me discernment has been more akin to the story about the man who bought a donkey known to be the most gentle, hard-working animal around.
When the new owner came to take the donkey, the man asked the previous owner if there was anything he should do to get the donkey going in the mornings. The previous owner told him that he only had to say, “come along with me,” and the donkey would follow. He demonstrated this, and once the donkey started walking, he handed the lead-rope over to the donkey’s new master.
The next day the man came back to the previous owner furiously demanding his money back. He said that he had gone up to the donkey and said, “come with me,” but the animal refused to budge. It only dug its hooves in deeper the more and more the man had tried to pull it out of the its stall. The previous owner was thoughtful for a moment, then asked the new owner to show him what he’d done.
The two returned to the stall; then new owner stood in front of the donkey and said, “come along with me.” The donkey didn’t move. The previous owner thought for a moment, then looked around the stall, finally picking up a two-by-four. Without hesitation, he hit the donkey on the head hard enough that it fell to its knees. When it got up, the man said “come along with me,” and the donkey followed. He handed the lead-rope to the new owner and said, “the donkey will do whatever you ask; you just have to get its attention first.”
Discernment for me has always been about prayerful reflection over time. The Lord speaks to us through our hearts and through others, and we can best hear Him when we take the time to listen. But sometimes we get so enamored with our plans, so set on the goals of our choosing, that He needs to get our attention.
Although the recent past has been difficult, and I have no illusions that the changes in my life will be easy ones, I nevertheless find this period of transition not only comforting but even a little exhilarating. How amazing (and humbling) is it that the Lord cares about us—cares about me—enough to finally smack me upside my metaphorical head to get my attention when he says, “come along with me”?
Peter of St. Joseph Bentancur article on Wikipedia (could use some editing)
Bethlemites article on Wikipedia that gives more information on St. Pedro
SAN PEDRO DE SAN JOSÉ BETANCUR (1626-1667) at Franciscan Saints give a much more thorough biography of St. Pedro
Here is another very nice biography, written in narrative form, written by Dom Antoine Maire, OSB, in the newsletter of the Abbey of St. Joseph of Clairval in France