There is no limit to what a man can do
so long as he does not care a straw who gets the credit for it.
~ Charles Edward Montague
We have it on good authority that the best kinds of good deeds are secret ones. “But when you give alms,” Jesus declared, “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Mt. 6.3).
The somebody in question is my sister-in-law, Marcia, and the story begins with the Vatican’s 1992 announcement that the eighth World Youth Day would be taking place in Denver the following year.
At the time, I was winding down as a parish Director of Religious Education in Boulder, Colorado, and getting ready for graduate studies at Franciscan University. My parish, Sacred Heart of Jesus, was spacious, with a school and gymnasium, and relatively close to Denver – an ideal site for accommodating WYD visitors. Not surprisingly, we were asked to house several groups of pilgrims, and my pastor asked me to help him coordinate the influx.
And when I say influx, I do mean influx. We put up hundreds of young people – groups from Germany and Mexico, as I recall, and a rather large group from Liechtenstein, including their bishop. Every available flat surface was utilized, and sleeping bags were omnipresent, from the church basement to the gym to every classroom in the school. Overnight, Sacred Heart Parish was transformed into a bustling youth hostel, with young people coming and going at all hours, clusters gathered here and there to pray, to sing, to laugh. It was all exhausting and exhilarating.
My job was to act as a point person for the different groups, a gopher of sorts and a trouble-shooter. Given my responsibilities, I was unable to participate in many of the actual events of WYD ’93 – the massive “audience” with Pope John Paul in Mile High Stadium being the big exception. Even bigger, though, was the concluding open air Mass that took place August 15 in Cherry Creek State Park. Hundreds of thousands of people – probably close to a million – assembled to break bread with the Holy Father, to hear him speak, and to bask in his glow.
Unfortunately, the basking also included a mini-heat wave that day, which, when combined with the enormous crowds, meant that conditions in Cherry Creek grew dangerous pretty quick. Dehydration and heat exhaustion overwhelmed many pilgrims, and some of the first aid stations had difficulty keeping up with the need. Consequently, people had to seek help where they could find it, and occasionally individuals got separated from their groups.
That was the case for one of the adult leaders who was staying in our parish. She succumbed to the heat, and was assisted to an aid station away from her group. In the confusion, her bus returned to Boulder without her, and she was left stranded in Cherry Creek. With only limited English and in a weakened condition, she was apparently able to at least utter the name of our church to the paramedics, and I got a call from them after a while. Since they were closing up the aid station, they wanted to know what to do with her.
At the time, I had my hands full handling the busloads of worn-out pilgrims returning to Sacred Heart, so I couldn’t go get her myself. Besides, it would’ve taken too long to get to Cherry Creek at that point, and it was clear from what the paramedics were telling me that an immediate solution was required. Should I call a taxi? None available due to the sudden demand. Maybe ask the paramedics to call an ambulance? What to do?
No doubt a prompt from the Holy Spirit, the thought suddenly materialized that my brother and his family resided in Littleton, not too far from Cherry Creek. Desperate, I gave them a call. Jim was at work, but Marcia, my sister-in-law, was home. I laid out the situation to her, and boldly asked if she could help.
Actually, to tell the truth, it wasn’t all that bold, because I knew my sister-in-law. Now, keep in mind that she was a homeschooling mother of four young children at the time, and it was no small thing that I was asking of her: To drop everything and chase down some ill, displaced stranger who spoke little English and whose needs were indeterminate. And Marcia wasn’t even Catholic, and so had no connection with World Youth Day whatsoever.
No matter – Marcia readily agreed to lend a hand. It was an ecumenical gesture par excellence, and perfectly in keeping with her selfless character. She piled the kids into the van, retrieved the woman from the aid station, fed her, and gave her a place to sleep for the night. The young woman arrived back in Boulder the next day in a cab. She was rested and refreshed, although perhaps a mite dazed by the chain of events.
And Marcia? Like I said, I knew my sister-in-law. For her, it was merely a trifle – no trouble at all. And certainly no need for recognition or fanfare, or even a formal thank-you. It’s just what Christians do – what’s so special about that?
You’d think that it was the canonization of Pope John Paul that led me to recall this World Youth Day anecdote, but it wasn’t. Instead, the episode was brought to mind by a bit of news that showed up in our local paper about an entirely unrelated ecumenical – or rather, interfaith – gesture.
It was a front-page item about Lois Gunden, a Mennonite missionary from Goshen, Indiana, whose life and legacy had been honored at a local Holocaust memorial service. Lois traveled to Europe in 1941 to serve refugees in southern France, and ended up dedicating much of her time and energy to frustrating Nazi genocidal designs. In order to protect the many Jewish children under her care, Gunden devised clever strategies and ruses, taking great risks on the children’s behalf, and putting her life on the line to keep them from being deported to the death camps.
Her interventions paid off – though not without cost. After occupying France, the Nazis detained Gunden for a full year, and they only released her as a part of a prisoner swap in 1944. Upon her release, Lois returned home to Goshen and quietly resumed her former life as a French teacher.
Amazing, right? Gunden is a hero by any measure – a reality recognized by the Holocaust memorial organization Yad Vashem when they named her “Righteous Among the Nations” last year, one of only four Americans honored with that title.
But here’s the really amazing thing about Lois and her heroic wartime exploits: Nobody knew – not even her family. In fact, the whole story didn’t come to light until years after her 2005 death when a relation started poking around in various Mennonite archives. During her lifetime, Gunden spoke hardly at all about her experience in Europe, and she certainly didn’t draw any attention to her daring rescue efforts. “She would never have considered what she did anything that wasn’t part of her job and wasn’t natural for her to do,” said Lois’ niece, Jane Metzler, at the recent commemoration. “All the details of what she did were really hidden.”
And, of course, that’s the connection with my sister-in-law: The hiddenness. Rescuing dehydrated foreigners in Denver is not quite the same as defying Nazis and saving Jewish children from Auschwitz, it’s true. But in both cases, you have women who chose to make what most of us would consider sacrifices – quietly, with no recompense or recognition – and who did so as if they had no other choice to make. They chose, in other words, the way of hidden holiness; they chose the way of the saints.
Finally all Christ’s faithful, whatever be the conditions, duties and circumstances of their lives—and indeed through all these, will daily increase in holiness, if they receive all things with faith from the hand of their heavenly Father and if they cooperate with the divine will. In this temporal service, they will manifest to all men the love with which God loved the world.
Temporal service. Whatever be the conditions, duties, and circumstances. Indeed, precisely through those very same conditions, duties, and circumstances – be they ordinary or extraordinary, hidden or on display for all to see – holiness will increase and God’s love will be made manifest. Such is the lesson I take from both Marcia’s and Lois’ examples – i.e., to be a saint does not require spectacular feats of self-denial, but rather a willingness to respond to opportunities for love and service when and where they present themselves, no matter how inconvenient.
Come to think of it, it is particularly fitting that the local commemoration of Lois’ life took place on the same weekend as the canonization of John Paul II. When he was still a young man and known as Karol Wojtyla, the future pontiff had his own Lois Gunden moment that augured his later warm relations with the Jewish people:
A few months before the war ended, Wojtyla rescued a starving 13-year-old Jewish girl at a train station by carrying her to the rail car in which he was traveling, feeding her and covering her with his coat.
Again, like Marcia, like Lois, no big deal – probably, you’ve never even heard of this JPII anecdote. It was classic faith in action: A need presents itself; the Christian responds. Done; next, Lord?
And in this case, we’re certain that it is the stuff of saintmaking. We do well to follow in such footsteps, especially if nobody knows about it.
A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.