On March 4th, in 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated as the thirty-second President of the United States, for the first of four terms. As he began his presidency, the country was in economic crisis, mired as it was in the depression. There were all kinds of concerns in the country at that time, with the economy going into some frighteningly uncharted waters. In his Inaugural Address, he addressed those concerns head-on:
“This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” That one phrase – “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” – became the watch phrase of his presidency and has been quoted in many terrifying situations ever since.
Sixty years later, in 1993, for the occasion of his fifteenth anniversary of elevation to the Papacy, Pope John Paul II, of blessed memory, did a series of interviews with Italian Radio that were collected into the wonderful little book Crossing the Threshold of Hope. The first interview concerned his acceptance of the papacy in his own life. His Holiness was asked if he ever hesitated in his acceptance of Jesus Christ and God’s will in his life. He responded, in part:
“I state right from the outset: ‘Be not afraid!’ This is the same exhortation that resounded at the beginning of my ministry in the See of Saint Peter. Christ addressed this invitation many times to those He met. The angel said to Mary: ‘Be not afraid!’ (cf. Lk 1:30). The same was said to Joseph: ‘Be not afraid!’ (cf. Mt 1:20). Christ said the same to the apostles, to Peter, in various circumstances, and especially after His Resurrection. He kept telling them: ‘Be not afraid!’ He sensed, in fact, that they were afraid. They were not sure if who they saw was the same Christ they had known. They were afraid when He was arrested; they were even more afraid after his Resurrection.
“The words Christ uttered are repeated by the Church. And with the Church, they are repeated by the Pope. I have done so since the first homily I gave in St. Peter's Square: ‘Be not afraid!’ These are not words said into a void. They are profoundly rooted in the Gospel. They are simply the words of Christ Himself.” And these words – the simple three-word phrase – became the watchwords of his papacy: “Be not afraid!”
Both of these courageous men echoed the words of the Gospel that had formed them. Roosevelt had been formed in an Episcopal boarding school whose headmaster preached the duty of Christians to help the less fortunate. He had lived through polio. Pope John Paul as Karol Wojtyla had lived through and beyond the Communist control of his country, buoyed as he was by his Catholic faith. Both of them heard the same words we have in today’s Gospel, words that inspired and encouraged them, and words that they lived by:
“Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin?
Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge.
Even all the hairs of your head are counted.
So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
These words echo through a world that is, at times, an extremely frightening place. Even now, our own country faces some very uncertain times, and we are in a place we haven’t been in some time. Wars rage on in Afghanistan and Iraq. Relations with many other nations are strained. Some of our traditional allies have not been able to stay with us. Prices on everything from oil to milk are skyrocketing. It’s hard for us to see where our society will be in the near or distant future.
Then, too, we have worries in our own lives. So many people are facing the prospect of losing their jobs. Unemployment is creeping to a level we haven’t seen in some years. People are in danger of losing their homes. Then there are the periodic worries that affect us all from time to time: illnesses suffered by ourselves or a loved one, the death of those close to us, raising children in a society that has more opportunities for danger than have been present in the past.
To all of our worries, both global and personal, the words of FDR, the words of JPII, the words of Jesus himself confront us: BE NOT AFRAID. The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. You are worth more than so many sparrows. Not a hair of your head goes uncounted. God is in control. We worry when we can’t see the big picture, or even the light at the end of the tunnel. But the only words we need to focus on are the words our Savior shouts into the vortex of our whirlwind world today: BE NOT AFRAID. God is in control, and his power is sufficient for any worry, global or personal.
I don’t bring you this message casually or even glibly. I know the pain of many of these situations. I have seen it on the faces of those I have been with in even just two years of priesthood when times are difficult. But I continue to firmly believe that God is sufficient for our weakness, as St. Paul often tells us. The One who can overcome the disaster of sin and death by his own sacrifice on the Cross can certainly help us through the rocky roads our lives sometimes travel through. So be not afraid.
Jesus echoes the words that our Psalmist sings today:
“See, you lowly ones, and be glad;
you who seek God, may your hearts revive!
For the LORD hears the poor,
and his own who are in bonds he spurns not.”
God will not forget us, not even forget a hair on our heads. We are worth more than many sparrows. Be not afraid.