Paul the Great and André the Giant
Historians speak of the “Great Man” approach to history. The theory has three main components: individuals make history; those individuals are mainly men; and we regard them as great and—apart from the villains—admirable.
It’s easy to overlook the greatness of the little things and the “little people” that make up the big things in the world.
We express our dignity and our respect for others by our hygiene and appearance. Barbershop mirrors ensure we can monitor every snip as the barber trims us to perfection. However, we usually take our less-noticeable features for granted.
For example, we seldom fully appreciate the cartilage shock absorbers separating the vertebrate on our backs. But then periodic back problems certainly command our attention. When back muscles seize up, the disks of cartilage in our lower back work overtime to protect our nerves. Pinched nerves and radiated pain are terrible. We can’t walk properly. We can’t sit comfortably, and we can’t think straight. Every little detail becomes a chore. We are irritable with the pain and become testy and nasty. It never ends!
But I digress.
Those insignificant pieces of cartilage protecting our spines are not so unimportant after all. A broken pinky toe ruins eight weeks of comfortable living. Some historians suggest that dysentery clouded General Robert E. Lee’s military judgment at Gettysburg. The machine of the human body needs everything in good working order for us to fire on all cylinders.
Paul the Great
Paul was one of God’s “little people.” He was middle-aged, sick with cancer, homebound, and needed a priest to visit him with Holy Communion. Paul had Down’s Syndrome. He always greeted visitors with good cheer. His voice had that pleasant Down’s Syndrome cadence. Paul prayed with true devotion. His parents were sometimes present and beamed smiles. But they fought off a tinge of sorrow because they knew Paul was dying.
One day, the parents called the priest to Paul’s deathbed. Paul greeted the priest with his usual friendly but now weakened voice. His immediate family—and many members of his extended family—surrounded the bed. The priest administered the Sacraments. Even among the extended family, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. The priest couldn’t help but remember the words of the crowd when Jesus wept with news of the death of Lazarus: “See how He loved him!”
The priest learned a valuable lesson that day. The allures of the world are tempting. God gave Paul a big mission in life. This simple soul was a great man because he taught his family the meaning of love.
André the Giant
André was born in 1845 in Canada, the eighth of twelve children. As a newborn, he was so frail that he received an emergency baptism. A falling tree killed his lumberman father. He became an orphan at twelve when his mother died. His foster parents brought him to Quebec, and the parish priest taught André the catechism.
André was a poor student. At age 14, he could barely read and sign his name, so the authorities removed him from school. André was too weak to sustain work as a farmer, tinsmith, cobbler, or baker. At 18, he moved to Connecticut and Rhode Island and joined several relatives working in textile mills.
The pastor of his parish noticed André’s devotion and generosity. So the priest decided to present André to the Congregation of Holy Cross in Montreal. The note to the superior read, “I’m sending you a saint.” André received the religious name, Brother André. His work as a sacristan and laundry worker gave way to 40 years of service as a humble doorman.
A biographer wrote: “His great confidence in St. Joseph inspired him to recommend the saint’s devotion to all those who were afflicted. On his many visits to the sick in their homes, he would rub the sick person lightly with oil taken from a lamp burning in the college chapel and recommend them in prayer to St. Joseph.”
Many claimed the prayers of Brother André cured them. His biographer, again: “When an epidemic broke out at a nearby college, André volunteered to nurse. Not one person died. The trickle of sick people to his door became a flood. His superiors were uneasy; diocesan authorities were suspicious; doctors called him a quack. ‘I do not cure,’ he said again and again. ‘St. Joseph cures.’ In the end, he needed four secretaries to handle the 80,000 letters he received each year.” The holy and simple doorman, Brother André, died in 1937.
Brother André Bessette caught the attention of some big shots. Pope Paul VI declared him Venerable. Pope John Paul II beatified him, and Pope Benedict XVI canonized him in 2010. God gave Brother André a big mission in life. He taught his contemporaries the power of humility and devotion. The little and insignificant Brother André was a giant of a man. So were those people around him who enabled his greatness.
No one is insignificant
None of us are insignificant members of the Body of Christ. Without our work, the Body of Christ limps and winces with pain, and distracts us from our quest for salvation. Have you identified your vocation? Do you appreciate your calling as a Catholic? Are you working your vocation? Or do you allow self-pity and anger to choke your growth?
“The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” (Mt. 13: 31-32)
Paul the Great and André the Giant, pray for us—including those who think we are insignificant members of families and the Mystical Body of Christ. Greatness consists of this: “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Cor. 10:31)
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