By Barbara Hughes
Barbara Hughes is an author, retreat facilitator and spiritual guide. She lives in Virginia Beach and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
August 26, 2019
People of faith can’t be held hostage by fear
Life is a series of changes. Bodies show signs of aging, children grow up and leave home, neighbors move away, people get sick and pets die. It’s all part of the ebb and flow of life that we’ve come to accept, some more readily than others.
The cyclical nature of life is all around us. The leaves on the dogwood trees in our backyard are beginning to turn red, the family of bluebirds that inhabited the birdhouse out back left without notice. One day they were there; the next day they were gone.
Though disappointing, such changes are not earth-shattering. We’ve come to expect them, but when a person goes to a movie theater and never returns, or when a couple who was shopping for an air mattress for visiting family isn’t alive to welcome them on arrival, something is terribly wrong.
The abrupt upheaval in the sequence of life events no longer makes sense when a 15-year-old boy expecting to begin his sophomore year in high school doesn’t live to see the first day of school.
As stories about the victims of the mass shootings surface, one thing is clear: their stories need to be told. Despite the heart-wrenching details, they need to be real because until victims have faces, their lives will be buried with them, and their names will become one more statistic that disappears until the next set of victims is reported.
In the aftermath of every tragedy, tears are shed, prayers and condolences offered, but sadly, the only change that seems to occur is an increase in the frequency of such inexplicable acts of violence.
As a result, people walk around in fear. A motorcycle backfires and sends people in Times Square running for safety. Parents worry when they send their children to school and they’re afraid to let them play outdoors unsupervised. Airport security is tightened, and people are warned to report anything or anyone that appears suspicious.
As fear grips our country, its tentacles reach deep into the recesses of the heart of its citizens, adding to the growing climate of suspicion and distrust. When fear is accompanied by doubt — doubt in the goodness of our fellow human beings and doubt in the God who is tender and compassionate, understanding and forgiving — the soul of the entire nation suffers.
Too often fear gives way to blaming others. Rather than working toward solutions, scapegoats are sought, blame is assigned and nothing changes. Hatred and fear of people whose skin color is different, who worship differently or espouse different political ideologies are the real harbingers of violence. Prejudice, bigotry and intolerance are the fuel that ignites hate speech and have no place in a God-fearing nation.
As people of faith we cannot be held hostage by fear because to do so is to deny the triumph of goodness over evil. The sovereign dominion of the divine Creator over his creatures is one of the guiding principles of our faith, and evidence abounds.
Let’s not lose sight of the love that impelled parents who died shielding their 2-month-old son from death or the couple who died trying to protect one another from the assassin’s bullets. These are stories of goodness that retell the story of the Paschal Mystery as it is played out in real time.
Reminiscent of the many martyrs who laid down their lives for God, when actions are driven by the sacrificial dimension of love, their roots reach all the way to Calvary. They are examples of the inherent goodness of people who are created in the image of God and live accordingly.
Their courage captured the attention of the world and hope lives on in retelling their stories. We pray for them, but we can also pray to them because they have a special place in the center of the wonderful exchange of grace and merit between souls in heaven, souls in purgatory and the Church on earth.
Change doesn’t always follow a logical or pre-ordained sequence, which is why Jesus warned us to be vigilant. We know neither the day nor the hour when our life may be taken from us. He cautioned that it’s better to fear those who can kill the soul rather than the body.
The thought of losing our soul is the only place where fear can be justified, but with the grace of God and with our eyes fixed firmly on the resurrected Christ, we take hope.
Change is inevitable, but not all change is bad; it’s the way we grow. As Blessed Cardinal Henry Newman, who will be canonized a saint on Oct. 13, wrote, “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”
August 12, 2019
Use your God-given talents for the common good
After suffering through the recent heat wave where temperatures hovered around 100 degrees, the rainstorm that brought cooler weather was a relief. Instinctively, we long for and assume that severe weather patterns are temporary and that eventually temperatures will return to normal.
However, wishful thinking is as irresponsible as it is unrealistic. With icebergs melting at an alarming rate, scientists warn of dire consequences and environmentalists appeal to our better angels to consider the world that our children and grandchildren will inherit, seemingly to little avail.
Record flooding in the Midwest, wildfires in California and epic hurricane damage along the Gulf and East coasts should afflict our conscience and motivate us to change our behavior. Pretending that human behavior doesn’t impact the environment is paramount to denying our responsibility to care for the earth.
When God created the world, he gifted us with everything that was needed to sustain life. Created in God’s own image and likeness, we were imbued with the capacity to love and live in communion with God, with one another and all of creation.
In his encyclical “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis explained that our ecological crisis is a call to interior conversion. By this he meant that we can’t view the world in which we live as though it existed in isolation. As part of the human family, we are all connected. The goods of the earth were given to us by our creator to use wisely and judiciously with the welfare of every person in mind.
As Christians we can’t dissociate ourselves from those who are impacted by droughts, floods and famines. The fact that the world’s poor, who use the least amount of the earth’s resources, are the ones who suffer most when disasters strike should give every God-fearing Christian pause.
It’s not enough to simply react to the latest crisis. As responsible citizens of the earth, it’s equally important to take a proactive stance and find ways to utilize and distribute the world’s goods and resources in a more equitable manner. With an eye toward sustainability, we should be able to make a difference not only for our generation but for generations to come.
It seems ironic that we were able to put a man on the moon 50 years ago, but we are unable to find renewable sources of food and energy that are environmentally friendly, economically feasible and globally available. Rather than lacking the capability, we who live comfortably seem to lack the will.
Small minded thinking that promotes a spirit of nationalism at the expense of global solidarity runs contrary to the Lord’s Prayer. We pray “Our Father,” not my Father, and the two greatest commandments are to love God with our whole heart, mind and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves. According to Jesus, the word neighbor applies to every person — especially those who are in need.
Today’s easy access to worldwide communication allows us to see the plight of the suffering poor. However, it can also be used to promote the common good when nations work together.
It may sound like an impossible feat, but Russia and the United States have been able to partner in space, even as hostility between the two countries continues to escalate. The Olympics bring together athletes from almost every nation as a shining example of worldwide cooperation. Though fiercely competitive, winners are celebrated on a global stage as the national anthem of gold medal winners is respectfully played.
It’s not the power brokers that create peace and harmony, but ordinary people who develop their God-given talents not only for their own advancement, but for the common good.
Imagine a world where the best minds from every walk of life come together to promote peace and prosperity for all people. When science and technology work together in a spirit of mutual concern and shared purpose, change can happen. However, a personal commitment on the part of every person is also required.
Since the only behavior we can change is our own, we can begin by examining the way we use our talents and the resources of the earth. Practices as seemingly insignificant as lowering the thermostat in the winter, raising it in the summer and turning off lights when we leave a room make a difference. This summer I transformed a portion of our yard into a rock garden with drought resistant plants. No more watering required.
When we live more simply so that others can simply live, we make a difference. As a country that has been richly blessed, it’s the least we can do, and now is the time to begin.
July 29, 2019
In celebrating Feast of the Transfiguration, pray for peace
In 1945, as Catholics around the world celebrated the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, an atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The Transfiguration and the atomic explosion both involved a blinding light. One led Peter, James and John to lie prostrate before the glory of God; the other vaporized human beings, leaving only the outline of their remains amid scorched survivors who wandered the streets in shock, their skin hanging off their bodies.
The incongruity of the events happening on the same day is almost too much to bear, and yet as if that weren’t enough, three days later, another atomic bomb was dropped — this time on Nagasaki. It’s impossible to place an exact number on how many people died as a result of the bombings, but most estimates claim that almost a quarter of a million civilians died in the aftermath.
As a result, it seems fair to say that Hiroshima and Nagasaki will forever cast a shadow on the Feast of the Transfiguration — or perhaps it can help us better understand it. Matthew, Mark and Luke all offer an account of the Transfiguration in their Gospels, and they are strikingly similar. Each describes a voice from heaven that identifies Jesus as “My beloved Son,” and then instructs the apostles to listen to him.
On coming down the mountain, Jesus tells the three to tell no one what they had seen. However, most Scripture scholars agree that the words of Jesus they were to heed were about the three predictions of the Crucifixion that followed the Transfiguration. The apostles didn’t understand the imperative about the cross, or perhaps they didn’t want to hear it. Who can blame them? No one wants to suffer, yet there are and have been privileged souls who see beyond the natural and recognize another reality.
One such person is Dr. Takashi Nagai, whose story author Robert Ellsberg related and referred to as the mystic of Nagasaki. He explained that Nagai was working at the medical center in Nagasaki, 500 yards from the epicenter when the bomb exploded. After being treated for a severed carotid artery, he worked tirelessly among dazed and dying survivors.
While it would be natural to express anger and outrage at what had been done to the people of his city, Nagai, a devout Catholic, thanked God that his city, which was predominantly Catholic, was chosen to atone for the sins of humanity. In the aftermath, he worked tirelessly among the victims. He recognized all life as precious and accepted with grace the work within the situation and did it with love and humility.
Nagai regarded the ending of the war, which took place on Aug. 15, the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, as deeply meaningful. In the days and weeks that followed, as Nagai treated survivors, he also tried to console and comfort them, helping them to find redemptive meaning in the suffering that had been inflicted upon them. During an open-air Requiem Mass for victims, his words — though considered controversial by some — bear serious consideration. He told those gathered:
“We have disobeyed the law of love. Joyfully we have hated one another; joyfully we have killed one another… In order to restore peace to the world, it was not enough to repent. We had to obtain God’s pardon through the suffering of a great sacrifice… Let us give thanks that Nagasaki was chosen.”
A few years later, Nagai was bedridden, a victim of radiation exposure, but he continued to write. Most famously, he penned the words: “Men and women of the world, never again plan war!… No more war! Let us follow the commandment of love and work together.”
Nagai died on May 1, 1951, at the age of 43. On his tombstone is written: “We are merely servants; we have done no more than our duty.”
How timely are the words of this great mystic as hateful rhetoric and division continue to escalate in our nation, our neighborhoods and in the world. May we never forget the lessons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration on Aug. 6, may we be ever mindful of the evils of war, work to promote God’s law of love and pray for peace and an end to war — now and forever.
July 15, 2019
Show compassion for those with mental illness
Coincidence or divine providence? It was a perfect afternoon for a bike ride, so rather than drive to our destination my husband and I opted for the exercise. Though we had traveled the route countless times, we missed the street where we usually turn.
Rather than turn around, we decided to keep going. That’s when we noticed the young woman who was hitting her head against the metal pole of a stop sign. Immediately alarmed, I stopped to ask if she needed help, to which she responded, “No, I just want to die.”
As I put my arms around her, she offered no resistance and eventually agreed to sit down and talk. As it turned out, she was only 12 years old and had run away from home after an altercation with her mother. She refused to tell me where she lived because she didn’t want to go home.
Eventually, I convinced her that if we call 911 and request a community mental health officer to come, she would be taken to a safe place where she would receive the help she needed. Within minutes after the officers arrived, we learned that her mother had already notified the police that she had run away, and that she had recently been discharged from a mental health facility.
By this time Sara (not her real name) was complaining of a headache and the abrasion on her forehead indicated medical intervention was needed. The police radioed for an emergency medical unit and we were assured that help was on its way. After the ambulance arrived, the officers thanked us for what they called “being good citizens,” and we were told we could leave.
Although our physical contact with Sara ended there, she and her family have remained in my thoughts and prayers every day because mental illness affects the whole family. However, unlike physical disabilities, the wounds and suffering that afflict them are invisible, which means that people with mental illness are apt to be judged, marginalized or criminalized.
While less than five percent of people with mental illness are aggressive, recent mass shootings have contributed to a tendency to be fearful of people who have a mental illness rather than supportive. As a result, the sense of isolation and the interior pain experienced by them is compounded.
Last year my husband and I attended classes sponsored by NAMI (National Alliance for Mental Illness). It’s a 12-week series of classes that educates and supports families whose loved ones have been diagnosed with a mental illness. Since we are one of those families, we can attest to the importance of NAMI’s mission.
One of the stigmas that surrounds mental illness is silence, and until that silence is broken, those with mental illness will be victimized by discrimination as much as by their illness. Over the past few years as I have begun talking about mental illness, parents, siblings and spouses have come forward and shared their stories.
Recent studies indicate that one in five adults in the United States suffers from a mental disorder and one in 25 has a mental illness severe enough to cause functional impairment. Since mental illness is most often caused by a neurochemical imbalance, it can be controlled with proper medication and talk therapy.
Not unlike physical disabilities, goals may need to be altered, and accommodations made, but shame, guilt or fear should never be part of the equation — nor should silence.
In May 2018, the bishops of California issued a ground-breaking letter titled, “Hope and Healing,” (https://www.cacatholic.org/ hope_and_healing) calling on Catholics and people of goodwill to remove the stigma that continues to surround mental illness. The letter urges health care officials, scientists and researchers to work to improve care for the nearly 44 million American adults who struggle with mental health disorders.
To remove the stigma, the California bishops urged Christians to get to know people with mental illness, to befriend them and to listen and walk with them. As the letter states: “This is not because we have all the answers to their problems or can cure all of their afflictions, but simply because these encounters — these small acts of love and compassion, understanding, and friendship — are precisely what people need most.”
I am convinced that it was no accident that my husband and I took a wrong turn last Sunday. Sara’s guardian angel was instrumental, just as the Holy Spirit is every time I have been inspired to talk or write about mental illness.
During the first half of my adult life, I worked in the field of mental health, but it was not until it became personal that I truly appreciated how God is present in the most vulnerable and hears the cries of the poor, the broken and the disabled.
July 1, 2019
Appreciate the gift of Jesus’ Precious Blood
As Americans prepare to celebrate Independence Day, we do well to reflect on the history of our nation and the lives sacrificed to win our independence from England, as well as the lives lost in the years since.
The celebration of the 75th anniversary of D-Day has heightened our awareness regarding the price that many have paid. We hold in high regard those who have given their lives, whose blood turned the waters at Normandy red to secure freedom for us and for our allies.
As I ponder such weighty sacrifices, my mind goes instinctively to the words of St. Paul who wrote, “Only with difficulty does one die for a just person. Though perhaps for a good person, one might even find the courage to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:7).
It seems unconscionable that anyone would willingly die on behalf of their enemies, and yet that’s what the Son of God did for us.
In response to this great sacrifice, the Catholic Church dedicated July to the Most Precious Blood of Jesus. In 1849, Pope Pius IX designated a separate day during the month as the Feast of the Most Precious Blood, but in 1969, the feast was eliminated from the Roman calendar.
It was decided that devotion to the Precious Blood is included in the Mass and Divine Office of the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ on the Feast of Corpus Christi. However, as Pope Benedict XVI noted, the precious blood of Christ is still worthy of praise.
Devotion to the precious blood of Jesus can be traced to the early days of Christianity when the Church fathers declared the Church was born from the side of Christ when blood and water poured forth. The significance of blood as the highest form of religious worship that human beings can offer to God is well documented in Scripture.
Prior to their exodus from Egypt, the Israelites were instructed to sacrifice a lamb and sprinkle the doorposts and lintels of their homes with its blood so that the Angel of Death would pass over it. The imagery of sacrificial blood from slain animals remained an established sacred ritual for the Jews.
While in the desert, and according to the Lord’s instruction, Moses sprinkled sacrificial blood from a lamb on the altar, then read the book of the covenant, to which the people responded, “Amen.” Then he sprinkled blood on the people with the words, “This is the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you according to all these words” (Ex. 24:8).
From the beginning God was preparing the Israelites of old for the sacrifice of the New Covenant that was fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ.
When Jesus gave himself up on the altar of the cross, we were freed from the powers of death. It was the ultimate sacrifice feely given as an act of love, the life-saving sacrifice that is repeated during the sacrifice of the Mass.
But Calvary wasn’t the first place where the blood of Jesus was shed. Devotions to the precious blood cite seven such occasions. The first was at his circumcision, when his parents subjected Jesus to the ritual imposed on every male member of the Israelite nation. The second time was during Jesus’ agony in the garden when blood co-mingled with his sweat.
During his Passion, the blood of our Lord was shed when he was scourged at the pillar and it flowed from his head when he was crowned with thorns. As Jesus made his way to Calvary, a trail of blood from his wounds continued the testimony of divine love, making the road that led from the place where he was condemned to death to the hill of crucifixion forever holy.
Finally, though he has seemingly given his all, Jesus’ blood christened the earth when blood and water from his pierced side transformed his act of total oblation into an ongoing mystery – a mystery in which we share each time we come forward to receive the Eucharist.
Truly, one day or one month is not sufficient to give thanks for the life-saving grace that is ours, but we can begin by asking God to increase our appreciation and love for the gift of Jesus who assured us with the words, “My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him” (Jn 6:55-56).
June 17, 2019
Trust that God holds our brokenness within his heart
I began writing this column focusing on the tornadoes and flooding that have plagued the Midwest when news of another mass shooting flashed across the screen — this time in Virginia Beach. It’s difficult to process such horrific tragedies as we work through feelings of shock and horror. Instinctively our hearts go out to them.
As people of faith, we offer prayers for victims and their families. The need to do something to help alleviate the pain of others prompts people of faith to turn to God on behalf of those in need, but unless we take the concerns and sufferings of others deep into our heart, the promise to pray can be as much about responding to our own feelings of helplessness as it is about assuaging the pain of the other.
In the presence of such suffering, we feel helpless, and it’s difficult to know how to respond. The saying, “I feel your pain” has become almost a cliché that is easily dismissed because there’s no way we can feel another person’s pain. And yet, isn’t bearing another’s pain the essence of compassion?
St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta prayed, “God break my heart so completely that the whole world falls into it.” I can’t say that I understand the depth of what she meant, but two things are noteworthy.
The first is that Mother Teresa, whose heart embraced the whole world, understood that compassion is a grace that comes from God. Secondly, true compassion causes the person to identify so intimately with the suffering of another that they create a space within their own heart in which to hold them.
In the “Cup of Our Life,” Joyce Rupp defined compassion as the “quivering of the heart in response to another’s suffering.” Franciscan Sister Ilia Delio explained that compassion runs so deep that the truly compassionate person breathes in the pain of the other. According to the author, compassion is a contemplative experience. It’s within the power of the contemplative to recognize the interconnectedness of separate individuals, which we refer to as the Mystical Body of Christ. It is part of the dynamic relationship between God and humanity. We are one, not only with one another as members of Christ’s own Body, but we are one in Christ.
In giving up his body on the cross, Jesus created a space for us within his heart. His passion was born out of his compassion for us and is life giving. True compassion is rooted in selfless love that holds the other in our hearts regardless of the cost.
Jesus is the perfect example of compassion. He gave us his Body and Blood in the Eucharist so that we can remain in communion with him and thereby in communion with one another. As Pope Benedict pointed out in “Called to Communion,” “The Body of Christ is no abstract theory, but a concrete event that takes place in the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist.”
As members of Christ’s Body we are bound together, and therefore it is safe to say that when we suffer, God suffers with us. We trust that the God of compassion holds our broken bodies, hearts and spirits deep within his heart.
We might not be able to understand why so many innocent people suffer, but we can take comfort in knowing that we are never alone in our pain. The first act of contemplation is to stand in awe of the mystery that invites us to share in the sufferings of Jesus in communion with the pain and suffering of others.
We might not be able to feel the pain of another person in the literal sense, but the emotions of sadness that tug at our heart remind us that when one member of the Body suffers, we all suffer.
This is the reason we lift one another up in prayer. We ask God to hold our individual and collective pain in his heart because only God has a heart big enough to hold the pain of the entire world.
On Sunday, June 23, the Church celebrates the Feast of Corpus Christi. We believe that Jesus is truly present under the appearance of bread and wine. In a similar manner, we are called to believe that he is present in us and therefore suffers with us.
Just as we come together as a community to celebrate and receive Eucharist, so we are called to walk with one another through the sufferings and sorrows of life. As part of the Body of Christ, the journey is one of communion with Christ and with one another because the spiritual life was never meant to be traveled alone.
June 3, 2019
Slow down, pray and trust God’s timing
Writing this column is a bit more challenging than usual. I’m onboard an Amtrak train heading home from Philadelphia after facilitating a retreat for lay and women religious who work in ecclesial ministry.
Tomorrow my husband and I leave for Florida to attend our grandson’s high school graduation, and the next day we leave for Savannah, Georgia, to attend the graduation of another grandson. Since the deadline for this column came due before we returned home, I opted for the train instead of flying so that I could write en route — no easy task given the jostling of the train and my already challenged typing skills.
However, after years of arranging my life around speaking commitments and deadlines, I’ve learned to pace myself, which means not working too far ahead. Admittedly, there are times when planning far in advance is necessary, but when I rely on the Holy Spirit for inspiration, trust is far more important than efficiency.
Trusting the Holy Spirit means giving up control, and the only way I’m able to do that is through prayer and by focusing on one task at a time. There will always be some situations and circumstances beyond our control, but rather than seeing such events as obstacles, I see them as doors that will open in God’s time.
That is a lesson we can take from the apostles who spent nine days in prayerful anticipation of the Holy Spirit whom Jesus promised would come. Notice, Jesus never told them when to expect the arrival of the Advocate. He merely told them to go to Jerusalem and wait. But wait for what?
Once again, the apostles found themselves in unfamiliar territory. They had just discovered that Jesus was alive when 40 days later, he ascended into heaven, leaving them with more questions than answers.
However, during the interim between the resurrection and ascension, Jesus gave them a valuable gift, and he continually reassured them. When he appeared to the apostles in the upper room, he said, “Peace be with you” (Jn 20:21). Another time, he came to them from across the sea and said, “Do not be afraid.”
Seemingly, the last thing that Jesus wants for us is to be anxious. When Martha was scurrying about complaining that Mary was not helping with meal preparations, Jesus gently rebuked her saying, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her” (Lk 10:41-42).
When life gets super busy, or when I find myself on unfamiliar terrain, I return to the words of Jesus, which puts things in perspective and fills me with the peace that only he can give. Obviously, there is a time for doing, but there is also a time when it’s important to slow down, watch and pray and trust God’s timing.
We know that God speaks in the silence of a listening heart, but how will we hear his voice unless we are willing to set aside the task at hand and listen to what he has to say?
Over the years, experience has taught me that when I rush into projects, whether writing a talk or an article before spending time in prayer, I usually end up hitting the delete button because I’ve missed the mark. When I doubt whether I have anything to offer, it’s time to entrust my doubts and fears to the Lord, because as St. Paul reminds us, “… for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12: 9-10). I witnessed that firsthand this week.
Adjacent to the spirituality center is the motherhouse for the Sister Servants of the Most Blessed Trinity who sponsored the retreat. Consequently, some of the retired sisters living at the motherhouse also attended the retreat, and what an inspiration they were.
Several were in their 90s. Their current ministry is prayer and visiting the sick, but their presence, words of encouragement and humility were a testimony to their years of joyful service and continued commitment to the Body of Christ.
They move slowly, some with the assistance of a walker, but that too is a source of inspiration. They remind me to slow down and appreciate the blessings hidden in everyday experiences, even something as simple as riding a train.
Sometimes slow is better and more enjoyable. Not only can we sit back and enjoy the view, but it’s an opportunity to wait on the Spirit. And since we never know where the journey will take us or who we will meet along the way, waiting on the Lord prepares us for what lies ahead.
May 20, 2019
How the gift of Mary worked in one man’s life
“Have you heard about Mary’s appearance to a Jewish Harvard professor who was flirting with atheism?”
The question came from a friend in Philadelphia who struggled for years with the emphasis Catholics place on Mary as intercessor and Mediatrix of grace. “Why go to Mary when we can go directly to Jesus?” was her usual response to explanations about Mary’s role in the Church.
Anyone who’s tried explaining Mary to a non-Catholic has probably encountered similar skepticism. However, this woman was a Catholic, so when I heard the excitement in her voice and her resolve to place in Mary’s hands a situation about which we were praying, I was intrigued.
After hanging up the phone, I did a Google search entering the words “Mary appears to a Jewish professor” and up came the site along with a video by the professor, whose name is Ray Schoeman.
He explained that as a young adult he had lost faith in the existence of God, but rather than give up entirely, he pleaded for guidance, asking God to dispel his disbelief if God really existed. Sometime later while on a nature walk, he described what seemed like a curtain between heaven and earth lifted, and he saw himself standing before God at the end of his life.
In that moment he understood that everything he had valued — his education, professional achievements and material wealth — counted as nothing. He regretted the years he had spent on worthless pursuits and lamented the fact that most of his life he sought the esteem of others, when all the while God’s love was waiting for him, greater than anything he could have imagined.
He went on to explain that exactly one year after his nature walk experience, he was awakened from sleep to meet with the Blessed Virgin Mary. At this point he was still struggling. Although he believed that God existed, he didn’t know what to do about it until his encounter with Mary, which led him to the Catholic Church.
Schoeman’s testimony is a personal witness and therefore does not rise to the level of an investigation by the Church. However, his sincerity and knowledge about the Catholic faith, the Eucharist and the Blessed Virgin Mary is inspiring and consistent with Catholic theology. The fact that he converted to Catholicism despite his former disdain for Christianity certainly adds credibility to his testimony.
Since his conversion 22 years ago, he attends Mass daily, and laments the fact that many cradle Catholics are unaware of the gift they possess, taking for granted their rich tradition, especially regarding the Eucharist.
Schoeman’s account is the story of his personal conversion. Rather than telling others what to believe, he is simply sharing what he experienced and how it has changed his life. Having been awakened to the truth of the Catholic faith, he feels impelled to share it. Isn’t that what evangelization is?
As Catholics, we have been blessed more than we know. Every sacrament is a deep and intimate encounter with the Son of God, especially the Eucharist, but the efficacy of the sacrament depends on our disposition.
We will never be worthy to receive Jesus in the Eucharist, but we can make every effort to prepare our heart by actively participating in the liturgy and being fully attentive to his presence when we receive his body and blood in holy Communion.
Every year during the Easter Vigil, we welcome newly converted candidates and catechumens into the Church. It should serve as a reminder that we are all called to conversion, not once, but every moment of every day.
This has always been Mary’s message to her children. She was the vehicle chosen by God to bring Jesus into the world. She gave us her son and in turn Jesus gave us his mother. No other human being knew Jesus as intimately as Mary did, which is why God continues to use her to lead us to him.
In his video, Schoeman said while in her presence, he wished that he knew a prayer that he could say to her, but was too embarrassed to say he didn’t know any, so he asked her what her favorite prayer was. Her response: “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.”
This is the prayer Mary told St. Catherine Labouré to have inscribed on the Miraculous Medal. It seems fitting since it defines Mary’s role from her conception to that of intercessor. Therefore, we can turn to Mary with confidence, knowing she hears our prayers and intercedes for us to become the person God is calling us to be.
May 6, 2019
Fire should awaken us to God as Truth, Beauty
In a conference I attended, Bishop Robert Barron described God as Truth and Beauty. His words offered a very simple description of a mystical reality that’s difficult to wrap our minds around, which may explain why they came to mind as I watched the Cathedral of Notre Dame go up in flames.
Not everyone can accept the fact that God is Truth, but believers and non-believers are drawn instinctively toward beauty. As the steeple on the cathedral fell, television commentators described the scene below where people stood aghast, clinging to one another as unabashed tears streamed down their faces.
Beauty draws people together, whereas all that is ugly divides. We see evidence of this in the hateful rhetoric that divides rather than unites us, be it in the world of politics, economics or religion.
Perhaps it was no coincidence that the fire occurred during Holy Week. I’m not accusing God of starting the fire, but St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta once said, “God never shows up late, but he’s also never early.”
What the saintly nun was saying is that there is a time and a place for everything, and God is present in every moment. The problem is with us. Until something so extraordinary happens that goodness and beauty finally draw us together, we don’t recognize the presence of God in our midst.
In the case of the burning cathedral, not only did God draw us close, but he drew our eyes upward into the heavens as day turned into night and the roof crumbled. Despite the conflagration, the two mighty towers remain erect, walls of the edifice firmly in place as eyes around the world were fixed on the Grand Dame of Paris, the House of God that, though threatened, could not be destroyed. Perhaps that’s just one lesson among many that stands out from this tragedy.
Less than 48 hours after the fire was extinguished, more than a billion dollars was contributed toward rebuilding the cathedral. The fact that it was a Catholic church made little difference. The sense of loss regarding one of the most beautiful structures in the world was universal, and the immediate response was to restore what had been lost.
It’s a resurrection story, and, as always, God’s timing is perfect. Even people who can’t accept the truth of God cannot deny the existence of beauty as the glue that holds humankind together. Isn’t that what God does, all day, every day? It’s enough to make you want to break into song and sing: “He’s Got the Whole World in his Hands.”
This is the reason Alleluias fill the air during the Easter season. Just when it seemed as if all was lost, Jesus rose from the dead, hope was restored and his followers realized a new day was dawning. Rather than an end to the story of Jesus’ life and death, it was the beginning.
The effects of Christianity are seen all over the world — in charitable organizations, religious communities and in the lives of holy men and women everywhere. And yes, even in structures like the Cathedral of Notre Dame which, though not immune to fire, continue to withstand the test of time.
The same can be said about the victims of the bombings on Easter Sunday. Their faith continues to shine from heaven where they now celebrate the Resurrection of the Lord.
All the earth reflects the glory of the new life. From the greening of the trees and lilies that trumpet alleluia to people of every nation coming together, there’s reason to rejoice because “Christ is Risen.”
The will to rebuild the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris is one more symbol of the resurgence of people. We see it after every disaster, man-made or otherwise. We pride ourselves on slogans like “Boston Strong,” but what will it take for us to acknowledge the Truth, which is that the strength we have comes from God, who is Truth and Beauty?
As a people we seem to have gotten the message about beauty as an essential ingredient in life. What we need to work on is the message about the importance of truth, and we can discover that only when we lay aside our differences and come together as one family enriched by diversity.
As we prepare for Pentecost, mindful of all that divides us, let us renew our commitment to evangelization by sharing the many ways God unites us, awakening us to the Truth and Beauty of who God is and will be forever — Father of all.
April 22, 2019
Jesus appears to us in the people we encounter
No one saw Jesus rise from the tomb. He was seen later in the garden, the upper room and in Galilee, but there were no witnesses to his resurrection. And yet we believe.
Not one person witnessed the event that made the earth quake or brought an angel from heaven to reassure grief-stricken disciples that Jesus had risen. And yet we believe.
There were no angelic choirs singing glory to God in the highest as hell was torn asunder and the gates of heaven were flung open. And yet we believe.
We can imagine the burst of divine energy that propelled the Son of God from the grave, but like the Incarnation that took place within the confines of a small room in the village of Nazareth, the resurrection of the Son of God was done without witnesses or fanfare.
It begs the questions: Why is it that the most cataclysmic events of all time took place hidden and in secret? How is it that despite our learning about them only after the fact, we continue to believe?
Ironically, the answer lies in the questions because believing without seeing is what faith demands.
As Catholics, we claim to be a resurrection people, and believing in the resurrection without seeing is what makes it so. Perhaps no one explained it better than St. Paul who wrote, “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen” (Heb 11:1).
Faith requires a different way of knowing. It depends on neither physical sight nor intellectual prowess. Faith invites us to believe in that which is beyond our ability to prove because it demands a different kind of seeing.
When we take to heart Jesus’ admonition to unbelievers that they have eyes but do not see, ears but do not hear, we understand that faith requires a type of night vision. It implies childlike trust that clings to God for comfort and reassurance when we are beset with temptations, heartaches and challenges.
Faith calls us to sit in silence listening to the heartbeat of God in the presence of a world that seems to have lost its way. We may not see God with our physical eyes, but we can see the results of his presence at work in the world.
We see God present in food pantries where the hungry are fed, in the right to life marches that proclaim life is sacred from conception to natural death, and in peace efforts and prayer vigils that follow acts of violence. Jesus’ resurrection is made visible when the sick are comforted and when prisoners are visited.
There may not have been witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus, but believers give witness to his rising from the dead all day, every day wherever people gather in his name for prayer and worship.
I was struck by this a few months ago. I stopped at a traffic light, and on three of the four corners of the intersection stood churches. None of them were Catholic churches, but all of their members believe in the resurrection and reveal God’s presence in their own way within the context of their faith traditions.
When we look at our world, we need to look at all of it. We live in a culture in which the media thrive on the idea that “what bleeds leads.” If this is all we look at, we risk seeing a distorted image of life.
To claim that we really are a resurrection people means we see the world through the eyes of faith and see God everywhere. Nature sings the praises of God, and the faith and kindness of people bear witness to his love.
Just as we look beyond the bread we eat when we receive the Eucharist, so must we look beyond the problems of the world and recognize the potential for transformation. However, transformation doesn’t happen without our input. God works through us.
Just as he comes to us disguised as bread and wine, so he uses our hands and feet, our voices and prayers to build his kingdom on earth. He could do it without our help, but he wants us to be part of his mission. He baptized us in his blood and made us partners, members of his own body to feed the world.
This is the meaning of his resurrection. Jesus is alive and he is appearing to us in the people we encounter every day.
May our hearts resound with alleluia as we move throughout the day, now and forever, but especially during this season of joy!
April 8, 2019
Consider how Jesus has touched you, how you’ve responded
As the end of Lent draws near, the readings and reflections are increasingly directed toward the passion and death of our Lord. The days preceding the Sacred Triduum are filled with drama, and the cast of characters surrounding the events that led to Jesus’ crucifixion are numerous.
Depending on which Gospel narrative is read, the actions recorded about the apostles and the witnesses of Jesus’ passion vary. However, there is one person who, though rarely discussed, is referred to in all four Gospels. This merits consideration. That person is Malchus, whose right ear Peter cut off when Jesus was arrested.
We don’t know much about Malchus other than the fact he was a servant of Caiphas and that after Peter struck his ear, Jesus touched it and he was healed. Only in John’s Gospel is the man mentioned by name and only Matthew mentioned Jesus’ admonition to Peter — those who live by the sword will die by the sword. Luke merely records Jesus telling Peter to stop.
Jesus’ direction is significant and dramatic, yet I don’t recall ever hearing a homily preached on the subject. Could such reluctance be due the fact that throughout the centuries, at any given time in history, the world has never been free from violence or war? It may be our greatest failing regarding the teachings of Jesus.
There are no easy answers to the ongoing presence of war. According to Thomas Aquinas and the Just War Theory, war is justified when; (1) the damage inflicted by the aggressor is lasting, grave and certain; (2) all other means are impractical or ineffective; (3) there is a serious prospect of success; (4) the use of arms must not produce evils graver than the evil to be eliminated. (Taken from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2309).
With the advent of nuclear weapons, justifying the means for a desired end becomes even more complicated.
When we read the Gospels, Jesus didn’t qualify his remarks. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he healed the man who accompanied those who came to arrest him, and the next day Jesus stood silent in the face of those who called for his death.
It’s a powerful example that Francis of Assisi, Ignatius of Loyola and others took to heart when they laid down their swords to follow Jesus. Does that mean that all war is immoral? Undoubtedly, prisoners and survivors of the Holocaust would answer with a resounding, “No,” which begs the question: Can good come from something as evil as war?
In “War and Peace,” Leo Tolstoy offers insight into this human conundrum. Depicting the complexity of human nature, this classic offers a portrait of Russian aristocracy during the years preceding World War I.
The characters in Tolstoy’s work are portrayed during times of peace as vain, frivolous and self-centered. Despite their wealth and social position, a sense of boredom led to reckless behavior, threatening their well-being that was often accompanied or perhaps caused by a loss of direction in their life. Outwardly they appeared happy, attending one gala event after another, but their merriment was only a facade to disguise a level of misery that was difficult to ignore.
When war broke out, some joined the effort as a lark or in search of adventure and glory, others because it was expected. And yet, as the horrors of war became all too real, a metamorphosis took place.
Mansions and palaces were transformed into hospitals for the wounded. Furniture and possessions that had been hidden for safe keeping were returned so the wounded and war weary soldiers would have a comfortable place of refuge.
Young girls and women whose only concern during times of peace was what to wear to the next party began nursing the sick and wounded, trying to ease the pain of the men who were victims of battle.
Class distinctions disappeared, as those who once were served worked tirelessly in the service of others. Amid the atrocities of war, compassion was born.
The irony that tragedy leads to triumph is at the heart of the Paschal Mystery. The reality that good can come from evil is repeated throughout the Triduum through betrayal, denial and unimaginable violence. We don’t know what happened to Malchus, but like all those who Jesus healed, it seems likely that he experienced a spiritual metanoia after Jesus touched him.
As we continue the last week of our journey, we do well to reflect on the ways that Jesus has touched us during our lifetime and consider how we are being called to respond.
Have we been changed? If not, what will it take?
March 25, 2019
Always connect the crib with the cross
The Feast of the Annunciation, celebrated March 25, inevitably falls during Lent, directing the Church to put aside purple vestments in exchange for white. The somber mood of Lent is replaced by the celebratory mood of the Incarnation, and although the feast will have come and gone by the time you read this, the feast is so important that I couldn’t ignore it.
Apart from the feast itself, it serves as a timely reminder that we can never separate the crib from the cross. The Incarnation imports the timelessness of the mystery, making it pertinent during every season — especially during Lent.
The Son of God became Incarnate because sin could not be the last word spoken about humankind. In coming down from heaven, God chose to do so in response to the fiat of a young virgin in the backwater village of Nazareth. The omnipotent and inconceivable God was conceived in the womb of Mary when the Holy Spirit came upon her, the power of the Most High overshadowed her and God’s own son entered the world.
In the person of Mary, we discover anew what it means to pray, “May it be done unto me according to thy word” as we continue our Lenten journey toward Calvary.
Mary’s fiat can never be separated from the Garden of Eden because it rent the veil of disobedience that had plunged the world into darkness. Nor can it be separated from Calvary, because to say “yes” to God is to say “yes” to the cross of Jesus.
As human nature’s solitary boast, Mary’s consent united her with Jesus from her womb to his tomb. Mary’s life was a tapestry of joy and sorrow. Joy woven from threads that swaddled her infant son and sorrow the loom upon which the burial shroud for her son was woven.
In Mary the two are inseparable. I wonder: when Mary beheld her son on the wood of the cross, did her heart recall the joy of years gone by when she first placed him in a wooden manger?
In meditating on the on the Joyful Mysteries of the rosary, I am struck by the fact that hidden within each occasion of joy is the cross. The first mystery ignores every social taboo, as Mary embraced motherhood knowing her pregnancy would evoke shock and condemnation.
Ever mindful of the needs of others, she traveled to help Elizabeth at a time when travel was fraught with danger as Roman soldiers patrolled the countryside of Galilee and Jerusalem.
Mary gave birth in an unfamiliar city in a cave where animals were housed. She presented her son to God in the temple and was told that her heart would be pierced as if by a sword. And when at last she found Jesus after searching for him for three days, she was rebuked by Jesus who asked, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Lk 2:49).
During Lent we are reminded of our mortality. We began the season by receiving ashes on our forehead in the form of a cross. The public proclamation is a bold statement about who we are as Christians and a reminder about the price that was paid.
We are told to hear the Good News and turn away from sin. We are instructed to pray, fast and give alms and to do so joyfully. It’s a tall order and an impossible feat to accomplish on our own.
Thankfully, midway through Lent we are reminded to turn to Mary, whom the Angel Gabriel greeted as “full of grace.” Just as she accompanied Jesus from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, she will accompany us on our journey as we make our way through the joys and sorrows of life.
In speaking about Lent, I often tell people we don’t need to be terribly creative in coming up with ways to do penance during this season. Life is filled with crosses, and when we follow Mary’s example and say “yes” to them without questioning, complaining or exacting conditions on the crosses in life, they become a source of grace that confirms us in faith, strengthens us in hope and transforms us into the compassion of Christ.
Bearing this in mind, we continue our Lenten journey trusting, “We know that all things work for good for those who love God,[b] who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:26).
March 11, 2019
St. Joseph’s silence speaks volumes about his love for God
Stories of miracles can be edifying, especially when they involve miracles pertaining to saints. The problem is that sometimes it’s difficult to separate fact from fiction. Case in point is St. Joseph, whose feast we celebrate on March 19.
About the only thing we know from Scripture about the foster father of Jesus is that he was a just and upright man who supported his family as a carpenter and that he believed the angel who visited him in dreams on at least two occasions. Although none of his words are recorded in Scripture, we can be certain that he took his role as guardian of Mary and the child Jesus seriously, and that his trust in God was unwavering.
The apocryphal (non-canonical) gospels of James and Matthew offer a scenario about Joseph, explaining how he was chosen to be the husband of Mary who had been dedicated to the Lord. When the high priest called prospective candidates as a possible marriage partner for Mary, each was told by a voice from God to lay a branch on the altar at the Temple and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove would land on the branch.
As soon as Joseph placed his branch on the altar, a flower bloomed and a dove appeared on the branch. This was viewed as a sign from God. Through the centuries, the scene has been depicted in sacred paintings and statues in churches with St. Joseph holding a staff from which a lily blooms.
A more recent legend surrounding St. Joseph involves a spiral staircase in Santa Fe, New Mexico, built by a mysterious stranger in the chapel of the Sisters of Loretto in 1878. After the chapel was completed, the builder discovered there was no way to access the 22-foot choir loft. After consulting numerous carpenters, it was determined that the only way to reach the loft would be with a ladder, which posed a safety hazard.
The sisters responded by making a novena to St. Joseph and on the last day, a gray-haired man arrived astride a donkey carrying a tool box that contained only a saw, a hammer and a T-square. Asking permission to build a staircase, his only request was that he be given total privacy.
Three months later, with the staircase completed, the stranger disappeared without accepting pay or thanks. Despite numerous attempts to find the carpenter, whom the sisters of Loretto were convinced was St. Joseph, he was never found.
All who saw the staircase marveled at the perfection of the curves. The perfectly spliced wooden stairs and the overall construction bore the mark of a master artisan. Adding to the mystery was the fact no one has been able to agree on the non-indigenous wood that was used.
For more than 100 years the staircase was used daily, even as builders and architects marveled over its construction and durability. At some point a hand railing was added to ensure safety. In 1971, as a result of declining vocations, the Sisters of Loretto closed the adjacent academy and sold the chapel, which is now preserved as a national monument. It is operated and maintained as a private museum for the preservation of what has been dubbed the “Miraculous Staircase.” As with every seemingly supernatural occurrence, some seek to dispute its authenticity, but for people of faith little explanation is needed.
Ask anyone who has sold their home after burying a statue of St. Joseph in the backyard and they will tell you the sale was a result of the saint’s intercession. However, the most important thing to know about St. Joseph has little to do with buried statues, a lily that springs from a barren branch or a spiral staircase that seemingly defies gravity.
What is important is the fact that he was a faith-filled, humble servant of God who was chosen to be the foster father of the Son of God. St. Joseph remains an example of humble service. Just as he seemingly deferred to Mary and Jesus while on earth, his silent presence seems to characterize the way he intercedes and intervenes from his home in heaven. Since it is assumed that Jesus and Mary were present at his death, St. Joseph has been named “Patron of a happy death”
As Catholics, we are free to believe or not believe in the legends and miracles that surround St. Joseph. However, there is something compelling about this kind and gracious saint whose silence speaks volumes about his love for God. The role he was chosen to play in the lives of Jesus and Mary cannot be disputed, and that alone should inspire us to pause, reflect and pray, “St. Joseph, pray for us.”
February 25, 2019
This Lent, focus on the ‘power of three
Although no one has been able to trace its origin, the power associated with the “Rule of Three” has been widely accepted. Mathematicians refer to it, orators utilize it and it appears often in literary texts.
Aristotle, Shakespeare and Abraham Lincoln all had recourse to it, most notably in phrases such as “Friends, Romans and Countrymen.” Or how about “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”?
It seems the Church has followed suit in applying it to Lent by identifying prayer, fasting and almsgiving as the hallmarks of Lenten praxis. Each hallmark is distinct, but when taken as a threesome, the cohesive boldness of the tripod sets Lent apart from every season. Further reflection suggests that the three hallmarks of Lent and the rule of three have a Trinitarian connection.
Most notably, God the Father comes to mind regarding the practice of fasting. Consider that fasting has been part of the human experience from the beginning. One of the first commandments that Adam and Eve received was to abstain from a certain fruit from a certain tree in the middle of the garden (Gen 2:16-17).
God established limits beyond which our first parents were not to go. They had everything they needed, but they wanted more, which led to their downfall. Admittedly, the story about Adam and Eve and the proverbial apple are not to be taken literally, but like the parables of Jesus, the story contains important life lessons.
God gave us free will, but it was never intended that we have absolute freedom to do as we please or to take whatever we desire. With free will came the mandate to exercise our will according to God’s plan. We were created in God’s image and likeness and with so profound a gift comes responsibility. Everything God created is good.
However, taking more than we need is morally wrong because it results in others having less than they need. Personal and societal greed has consequences, which leads us to the words of Jesus and the practice of almsgiving: “I assure you, as often as you did it for one of my least brothers, you did it for me” (Mt 25:40).
Jesus could not have made it any clearer. To perform good works is admirable, but to do so in the name of Jesus, whether spoken out loud or in the quiet of our heart, unites our good works and charitable gifts with the love and generosity of Jesus.
In so doing, they become a means of efficacy and grace for the giver as well as for the receiver. Almsgiving reveals the Kingdom of God as Love’s presence among us, but to be charitable requires God’s grace.
If you have ever tried fasting or doing good works on your own, you have probably fallen short because without God’s grace, we are helpless. We turn to God through prayer out of necessity, and even that requires God’s help.
In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul wrote: “And in the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (8:26).
Every prayer requires the help of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, every good thing we do or say is because God in his goodness has already planted the desire to perform good works within us. However, as in all things, the choice is ours to either respond to God’s grace or reject it.
Even with the best of intentions, we grow weary and lose sight of the goal. Happily, the Church in her wisdom has set aside Lent as a time to examine and re-order our priorities in keeping with who we are as children of God.
Following his Baptism, Jesus entered the desert where he fasted and prayed. By his example he showed us that we cannot live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. He taught us that earthly possessions are fleeting, and that true wealth and power lies in our relationship with God.
Jesus was tempted three times. If nothing else, the power of three should remind us that we have been created by the Father, redeemed by the Son and are guided and sanctified by the Holy Spirit.
Could we ask for any greater proof of the power of three? A power that was made manifest at our baptism and that we profess every time we make the sign of the cross. May we use the power that God has given us as we grow in wisdom, courage and grace this Lent!
February 11, 2019
How to make every day Valentine’s Day
Here we go again! No sooner do Christmas decorations disappear from store shelves then hearts and candies deck the halls of retail stores. Jewelers, confectioners and florists go into overdrive trying to convince shoppers that diamonds are a girl’s best friend, nothing says “Be my valentine” like a heart-shaped box of chocolates and when words fail, shy or secret admirers can say “I love you” with roses.
I wonder what the retail industry would do without holidays. In all fairness to them, their creative ingenuity is to be applauded. However, what I find troubling is a cultural message that equates love with things that make us feel good. And yet, it’s a beginning.
Such expressions of love aim to satisfy sensory appetites which were created by God and therefore are good. The senses serve as gateways to the physical world, but they also help us understand abstract concepts through sight, touch, taste, smell and hearing.
The sparkling bling of a diamond doesn’t replicate love, any more than a chocolate truffle or a fragrant bouquet of roses does, but on Valentine’s Day they serve as symbols for love, a concept that is as mysterious as it is palpable, and as elusive as it is real.
Paradoxically, love can evoke contrasting emotions, triggering tears and laughter, pleasure and pain. Consider that no valentine is complete without an angelic looking cupid delivering an arrow straight to the heart.
Scripture tells us that God is love, but what exactly is love? We look at a crucifix and we are reminded that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son to a world so violent that it nailed him to a cross.
Unlike jewelry, candy or roses, the cross reminds us that love involves a sacrificial dimension that is freely embraced for the well-being of another. Ask a pregnant woman if she is looking forward to experiencing the pain that precipitates the birthing process. The answer is obvious.
Or how about the man who works at a lackluster job to provide for his family? Both are expressions of love that point to something more important than sensory gratification.
Whether pain is physical or emotional, the motivating force behind the pain is about what comes after the pain. Whether it’s a mother’s joy when she holds her newborn infant or a father who sits down to a meal with his family at the end of the day, the driving force behind the action is love, be it on a conscious or unconscious level, spoken or unspoken.
When we consider love and all that it entails, there is far more to love than what the world would have us believe. The senses play a role. They alert us to what we need, but when satisfied, they remind us that they are only a temporary fix.
No matter how shiny an object, after awhile it loses its ability to excite. The empty box of chocolates eventually ends up in the trash much like the bouquet of roses that days earlier made hearts sing.
Therein lies a great lesson. Physical pleasures are passing, but true love remains. Love is neither a possession nor a feeling. It can’t be purchased, but it can be chosen because love is a decision, a moment in time to be lived as we journey to God who is love.
Consider that you are a few minutes older now than when you began reading this column. Bygone moments can never be retrieved, but we can be richer for them if we take time to appreciate the Love that is present in each.
Right here and now, we can thank God for his presence in us, with us and around us. We can decide to make love present to the next person we encounter. It might be a co-worker who needs an encouraging word, a street person asking for a donation, or a family member who could use a helping hand with a household chore.
The important thing is that we put our heart into whatever we are doing. It may mean moving beyond our comfort zone, but that too is a choice we are free to embrace or dismiss. All day, every day, we are faced with decisions, but when we stop and consider the consequences in light of Jesus’ life and love, we can make every day Valentine’s Day.
After years of seeking happiness in all the wrong places, St. Augustine wrote, “Our hearts were made for you O Lord, and they are restless until they rest in you.”
In the end it’s all about remembering who we are and to whom our heart belongs.
January 28, 2019
Treasure the art, value of storytelling
There’s something aesthetically pleasing about curling up with a good book, a cup of coffee or tea, and getting lost in a world of fiction that mirrors life. The more I read, the more I realize there’s nothing fictitious about most novels. Every story worth its salt bears within the story line a grain of truth and explains why literature looms large in human and spiritual development.
Storytelling is an art that engages the imagination, informs the mind and touches hearts, which is why Jesus spoke in parables during his public ministry. Following the Christmas season, the Church returns to ordinary time, where we encounter Jesus as teacher, healer and storyteller in the Gospel readings.
It’s been said that the best stories begin when the storyteller stops talking, making Jesus the storyteller par excellence. His parables are proclaimed from the pulpit, studied by theologians and discussed in Scripture study groups. They never grow old or become irrelevant even though Jesus was speaking to an agrarian society with little or no education that lived more than 2,000 years ago.
He drew countless followers because his message was as unmistakable then as it is today. We may not be farmers, but most everyone has tended a plant, even if it was a potted one, and know that for a plant to thrive certain conditions are required.
The same could be said about Jesus’ other examples. With the best of intentions, we’ve said “yes” to a parent and then failed to follow through, searched anxiously for something of value we’ve lost, or driven past a homeless person without stopping to help. You get the idea.
Parables turn our attention inward. They make us squirm because the truths they contain convict our soul. Absent relentless nagging that drives people away, stories invite listeners to examine preconceived notions that are laced with prejudice and self-righteous judgements.
The interesting thing about Jesus’ parables is that they were never about religion. They were about ordinary people, things and events that are part of everyday life. It’s what makes them appealing and so unforgettable that most Christians can recount them from memory.
The same could be said about historic novels, coming-of-age books and timeless classics that we return to again and again. They are intergenerational and intracultural. They act like mirrors that reflect our deepest desires, needs and failings, but they also help us to recognize goodness in people and cultures that are different from us.
They invite us to view life from inside another’s experience, helping us to be sensitive to the struggles that people everywhere and of every age encounter.
They reflect the good and the bad that are present in every person and invite us to examine our values and behavior in an honest and non-threatening manner.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the novella, “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho, prompting the printing of a special edition in honor of the occasion. Prior to Christmas a local bookstore enticed buyers with a buy two, get one free offer, an effective ploy since I left the store with several copies in hand.
Having read it more than a decade ago, I was familiar with the story, though many of the details had escaped me. Consequently, as I am wont to do, I read it before giving the books away, and found it just as enjoyable.
It offers a wonderful lesson about the value of process — a lesson we tend to overlook. In a culture that prizes achievement, our focus on the end too often overlooks the means. Unless we are intentionally mindful of each moment, it’s easy to miss the lessons gleaned as we journey through life.
The missed directions, wrong turns or assumptions carry within them important lessons, but unless we take time to notice and absorb lessons learned, life is reduced to a series of successes and failures.
Regardless of whether we pursue our dreams with a vengeance or set our sights on the present, the takeaway lesson from “The Alchemist” is to pay attention to lessons learned, especially when we find ourselves in the place we began, albeit a bit wiser, kinder and humbler than we were the first time.
The fulfillment of our deepest desire is here and now for those who have eyes to see. Jesus told his followers that the Kingdom of God was in their midst. Like us, they failed to understand, and so he told stories about everyday life, a powerful tool that changed hearts then and continues to do so today. Jesus knew that hearts are transformed not by chance, but by change, so let the storytelling begin.
January 14, 2019
We need wings and feet for the journey
In another week, Catholics will join likeminded citizens for what has become an annual pilgrimage to the nation’s capital, which began with the legalization of abortion judicated in 1973. After the celebratory mood of Christmas, it’s a stark reminder that we aren’t meant to live on a mountaintop.
However, when we descend with Christ, we discover graces embedded in the ongoing challenges of daily life. Simply put, life is a journey and faithful disciples need wings and feet as they travel a road beset with obstacles. We need feet to embrace the real even as we are motivated by the ideal. Clear evidence of this is visible in the thousands of pilgrims who journey to Washington on behalf of the unborn.
Despite frigid temperatures and congested streets, marchers both edify and anger onlookers depending on the person’s perspective. Undaunted by those who don’t share their ideals, these faith-filled pilgrims brave the elements in hopeful anticipation that their prayerful presence will hold sway over a judicial system that legalized abortion. Their commitment is as real as the ideal they espouse: the moral law always takes precedence over civil law.
Abortion has become one of the most controversial issues not only in our country, but in Poland, Ireland and Brazil where there has always been a significant Catholic presence. Even more problematic is the fact that statistics show the number of Catholic women who have abortions is consistent with that of the general population.
While we can’t identify any single contributing factor to this phenomenon, what we can do is pray, educate and advocate on behalf of the unborn.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Church has affirmed the moral evil of abortion since the first century. It states, “Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person. Abortion directly opposes the natural law and order of life. Therefore, the teaching of the Church has not changed and remains unchangeable” (CCC 2270 -2271).
The morality of abortion is not the issue here. The Church has always been clear on the moral evil of abortion. The problem we face is that many fail to understand, or refuse to accept, the fact that the moral argument against abortion is not the same as a legal argument.
Confusion comes about when abortion is defined as a civil rights issue — a woman’s right to choose, rather than a human rights issue — the fetus’ right to life. Therefore, one might ask: Whose rights take precedence — the mother’s or the child’s? Since only the child’s life is compromised through an abortion, the child’s right to life must always take precedence.
The answer is clear and simple, but life situations are not. Having listened to the stories of women who have considered or who have had abortions, my heart goes out to them, just as the love and mercy of God does.
Their decision was never easy. Many continue to pay a price. Therefore, for every person who marches to overturn Roe v. Wade, an army of equally dedicated advocates must work to change a culture that has put the sanctity of life at risk and must pray for those facing life or death decisions.
St. Thomas Aquinas wrote: “Although civil law is concerned with leading everyone to virtue, it does so gradually, not suddenly. Therefore, it does not lay upon the multitude of imperfect people the virtues of those who are already virtuous” (Summa Theologiae I-II, q.96.a2).
The saint is telling us we cannot be guided solely by civil law; there is a higher order. That higher order is the moral law which forbids Catholics to have an abortion even if civil law permits it.
Aquinas reminds us that civil law is not perfect, it moves gradually toward the common good and must be enforceable. That said, the annual pilgrimage to Washington may take another 46 years to effect change — or it could happen next year. In the meantime, we need to polish our wings and invest in a good pair of boots, because the March for Life is too great a cause to abandon.
At the same time, we need to keep in mind that reversing the law can make abortion illegal, but only God can change hearts. Life is a process that must be valued every step of the way, for we never know how many people will be inspired — not only regarding abortion, but for every life issue from womb to tomb.
December 31, 2018
In transforming yourself, you’ll transform the world
When friends and family gather to ring out the old and bring in the New Year, strains of “Auld Lang Syne” fill the air. However, few people give much thought to the meaning of the words, or the origin of the song. Written by a Scotsman named Robert Burns in 1788, the title means “days gone by” or “old times.” Loosely translated, it means “for (the sake of) old times.”
Despite the song’s theme of remembrance, New Year’s Eve is mostly associated with looking forward. Hence the practice of making New Year’s resolutions which, if we are honest, are broken more often than kept. The bitter aftertaste of repeated failures has led some to abandon the practice altogether. If this has been your experience, allow me to recommend reversing the process by incorporating a lesson from the Ignatian spirituality playbook.
In keeping with Ignatian spirituality, whose theme is “God in All Things,” St. Ignatius of Loyola counseled his followers to reflect each evening on the events of the day, mindful of what they did, who they met and what happened. Without straining or effort, he recommended they rest in what surfaces, take note of the feelings that arise within and express them to God.
Next, the saint recommended taking a moment to pray with one feeling or feature that stands out and reflecting on what God might have been revealing through that event or encounter.
Rather than ending the day with the typical examination of conscience that involves reviewing the times we messed up, failed to put God first or fell into sin, the Ignatian Examen, as it is called, offers a positive approach that generates feelings of gratitude, which lifts our spirit rather than depressing it.
By taking time to intentionally focus on the many graces that come our way during the day, we begin to realize that we are never alone, that the process of conversion is ongoing and that each challenge is accompanied by grace.
As we stand on the threshold of another new year, we can apply the same process to the events and encounters of the past year. Since we are often oblivious to the many occasions of grace when they occur, a glance in the rearview mirror is like receiving a second chance to recognize God’s presence where it had previously been missed.
The practice is intended to help us become more mindful and intentional of God’s grace within the context of daily life. Ironically, by looking back, we are actually being conditioned to go forward with a deeper awareness of God’s presence which is always with us.
St. Ignatius believed the Examen was a gift that came directly from God, and that God wanted it to be shared as widely as possible. One of the few rules of prayer that Ignatius made for the Society of Jesus was the requirement that Jesuits practice the Examen twice daily — at noon and at the end of the day.
It’s a habit that Jesuits and many Christians still practice. However, adapting the practice at year’s end can be efficacious in its own right. And there’s no time like the present to put these five steps into practice.
1. Become aware of God’s presence.
2. Review the day (year) with gratitude.
3. Pay attention to your emotions.
4. Choose one feature of the day (year) and pray from it.
5. Look toward tomorrow (the year ahead).
There are few guarantees in life, but by putting these steps into practice as we begin the new year, we may be inclined to practice them on a more frequent basis, perhaps even daily.
As in all things, it is wise to approach the practice one day at a time. Thereby, every day we put the Examen into practice, we will be one step closer to discovering who we are in God and become more mindful of God’s presence in our life every moment of every day.
As 2019 beckons, we can be confident that God is present in the world, healing and transforming it even as he invites us to be part of the process. We know the world will be transformed in direct proportion to the interior transformation taking place in each person when we are moved to action.
Every new year is a source of blessing, not because of anything we do, but because of what God can accomplish through us. Grateful for God’s grace and another new year, we embrace all that it holds one day at a time, confident that we are not alone.
December 17, 2018
Busy? Take time to pause, pray and reflect
Dec. 21 is the winter solstice. It’s the first day of winter and the shortest day of the year, appropriately named since the word means “sun standing still.” During the winter solstice, the sun’s daily southward movement appears to pause as the sun rises and sets at its southernmost points before reversing direction. The pause is so minuscule, we hardly notice, but its impact on the earth is significant.
In some ways the final days leading to Christmas seem to mirror this pause as the time to prepare grows increasingly short. So much to do and so little time. With last minute gifts to buy, homes to decorate and cards to send, it seems there are never enough hours in the day to complete the tasks at hand. Therefore, unless we are intentionally mindful of Advent, we can be swept away in a flurry of activity that wearies the soul and depletes the spirit.
With only a few days remaining before Christmas, we do well to take a lesson from nature’s playbook and pause, pray and reflect on the reason for the season. Amid a culture of consumerism and pre-holiday celebrations, it’s become more important than ever to set aside time to be still and ponder the mystery at hand.
One way to do this is by reflecting on the infancy narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The events remind us that the supernatural takes place within the natural order, not apart from it.
Elizabeth, who was thought to be barren, conceived a child in her old age. Mary, a virgin who was overshadowed by the Most High, conceived the long-awaited Messiah through the power of the Holy Spirit. Yet, amid such wonders, their pregnancies followed the natural order while both women fulfilled the responsibilities consistent with their state of life.
These were busy times as each prepared for the birth of the child in her womb. Mary was particularly active as she journeyed to Elizabeth and back to her home in Nazareth. She set up housekeeping with a man whose faith was tested. Then, heavy with child, she set out for Bethlehem with Joseph where she gave birth in a borrowed cave away from family and friends.
The Incarnate God came into the world during a time that external circumstances suggest was bad timing, but that’s the irony of the divine order. It isn’t predicated on standards of human readiness, or Christ would never have come into the world.
I find this reassuring, knowing that Christmas is coming, whether or not everything on my to-do-list is completed. When I reflect on the first Christmas, I realize that it’s OK if the house is not perfect, the last batch of cookies burned or a few unsent Christmas cards vie for my attention. Christmas is about Jesus coming, and that means I must make ready the interior space within my heart.
This year we are closer to Jesus coming in glory than we were last year at this time, so how have we prepared? Like the journey the earth makes around the sun every 365 days, we embark on a sacred pilgrimage that is repeated every year. The journey began in the heart of God the moment we were born.
We entered the world at a time and place not of our own choosing, yet from the moment we uttered our first cry, time became ours. The hours are ours to win or lose, to waste or use. How we spend them is our choice, but the winter solstice reminds us that the days are getting shorter.
We may never accomplish all that we set out to do, and that’s to be expected. Coming face to face with our limitations can help us reorder our priorities because Advent is a time to prepare not only for Christ’s coming on Christmas, but at the end of our life. Year after year, God shows himself to us as the Infant Christ.
As Father Robert Pelton wrote in his book “Circling the Sun,” “Jesus shows us that he has all the time in the world. What we’ve lost, he has found, and he is happy to wait for us to bring him the rest of what we’ve got.”
As we continue our journey toward Christmas, let us remember that nothing will be lost if we pause, pray and reflect during these last days because the Christ Child takes what we offer and exchanges it for the gift of his love. If the gift we offer is our heart, then the joy of Christmas will be ours now and forever.
December 3, 2018
Take hope, find courage to always walk with Christ
Amid horrific fires in California, hurricanes on the East coast, mass shootings and political rhetoric that grows increasingly angry and accusatory, the words from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans (8:22-24) seem especially relevant as we enter the season of Advent.
“We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now; and not only that, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what one sees?”
In view of so much strife on a national and global level, Paul’s words are comforting and challenging. As we begin a new liturgical cycle, Advent serves as a reminder that God Incarnate came into the world in the person of Jesus Christ more than 2,000 years ago, that he is with us now and that he will come again.
However, amid or perhaps despite the hope-filled mood that permeates Advent, the earth continues to groan, longing for a better world. As we prepare to welcome the Son of God anew, I find myself wondering: Has anything really changed?
This is where the words of the apostle comfort us. They provide reassurance that the conversion of the world did not end with the coming of Christ; it was only the beginning. Therefore, even we who have been gifted with the fruits of the Spirit continue to groan inwardly.
The difference is that Christ is now present in the groaning. His coming in the past made it possible for him to be present to us here and now, not only in Word and sacrament, but in people and circumstances.
How tempting it is to imagine a utopian world, a world that God would magically transform by putting an end to suffering. But that would negate not only the gift of free will, it would also eliminate the need for hope, for as St. Paul points out: “Who hopes for what they already have?”
In order to hope we need faith, because it is faith and hope that enable us to love. God works through the human process, healing the world of its wounds and sins through the conversion of hearts, and we are part of that process. Through our baptism, we have been commissioned to convert and transform the world as agents of hope and healing.
St. John of the Cross, whose feast the Church celebrates on Dec.14, wrote: “Trust in God should be so great that even if the whole world were to collapse, one should not become disturbed.” That doesn’t mean we won’t experience suffering, but that even in suffering we will remain hopeful.
As I watch victims sift through ashes, trying to imagine how they might put their lives together, I also see a cadre of volunteers, many of them victims as well, helping others salvage not only material possessions, but remnants of hope in what seems like a hopeless situation.
Some call these disasters divine retribution, but that flies in the face of what we know about God’s love and mercy. Perhaps the lesson we are to take from this is that life is passing, but God’s promise is forever. In a recent video, Abbott Thomas Keating assured his audience that in the end, “God’s goodness will triumph, but he let’s things happen so that no one will think that goodness comes from anyone but him.”
As a people we have become increasingly skeptical of institutions and especially of politicians who promise to fix all that is wrong with the world. Experience has taught us that, although governance plays a significant role in either advancing or thwarting God’s authority, some things are simply beyond human control.
This is not a license to throw up our hands and give up, but an invitation to allow ourselves to be inspired by the Holy Spirit so that everyone becomes the person God created them to be — beginning with our self.
As we begin the liturgical year, may we take hope and find the courage to walk with Christ today, tomorrow and in the days to come so that the earth’s groaning will inspire us to advance the will of God in us and through us.
As St. John of the Cross wrote: “Where there is no love, put love, and you will draw out love.”
November 19, 2018
Remember, ‘The Lord made us, we belong to him’
In his book, “The Road Less Traveled,” M. Scott Peck begins the first chapter with the words: “Life is difficult.” That fact should be self-evident but, as the author points out, most people have a preconceived sense of entitlement regarding the life they deserve. As a result, they remain frustrated and disappointed, an illusion that runs contrary to holiness. Peck’s observation seems to validate a response St. Mother Teresa made during a television interview years ago in which she was asked how she could remain happy while surrounded by suffering and the endless challenges of her work. Without a second’s hesitation the saint explained she didn’t place expectations on others. As a result, she was happily surprised when they did good things but was not disappointed when they didn’t.
Her disposition, which some might consider contrary to the virtue of hope, is exactly the opposite. In fact, her attitude was not so different from that of St. Teresa of Avila who regarded her work with what she called holy indifference. The 16th century Carmelite explained that if she put forth every effort and things didn’t work out as she planned, she was able to let go of prior prospects, trust in God’s providential care and move on.
The other day as I listened to the readings at Mass, the responsorial psalm “The Lord made us, we belong to him” (Ps 100:3) reminded me of the wisdom of those saints. Every good thing we enjoy is a gift from God. Nothing we have belongs to us. We neither merit them nor do we have a right to expect them. Therefore, gratitude is the only appropriate posture for people of faith.
The theme of our indebtedness to God is worth keeping in the forefront of our minds as we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving with all that it entails. The planning, shopping, cooking and gathering are all as much a part of our giving thanks as the celebration itself.
Thanksgiving is about sharing the fruits of our labor, the work of our hands and the relationships we nurture along the way. It’s also about giving thanks by sharing the gifts we have received with those who remind us that it is in giving that we receive.
“The Lord made us, we belong to him” calls those who have been abundantly blessed to accountability, which means we are to partner with those who have less. Like the God in whose image we have been created, we are called to be living examples of divine generosity.
In his wisdom, not all receive from God’s abundance equally. This is not an indictment against God’s generosity, but an invitation for us to be stewards of the earth’s goods and partners in the cause of justice. The mandate leaves no room for discrimination, false notions of entitlement or judgments based on the motives or plight of others.
Consider the under-employed who work two or three part time jobs to put food on the table, or victims of war who flee the terror and bombs of a dictatorial regime. And what about people born with disabilities and chronic illness, victims of violence and racial discrimination? Our ignoring their needs and cries for justice may well be our undoing when we stand before God who is Father and Creator of all.
“The Lord made us, we belong to him.” What thoughts come to mind when reflecting on those words? Do I think of me instead of us, I instead of we? Or do I imagine all of God’s children coming before the Lord, rejoicing and singing songs of thanksgiving, for we are all beneficiaries of his goodness?
We are indeed the sheep of his flock, but as we travel the road to Christian maturity, we are called to be shepherds as well. This is a role reserved not only for clergy or religious, but for all who are willing to proclaim Psalm 23: “Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life.” Do we understand the irony of praying for peace while we supply weaponry to half the world and applaud a 400-plus billion-dollar arms sale to a country with human rights violations?
With an abundance of blessings comes responsibility. As we gather to give thanks around tables laden with the goods of the earth and the work of our hands, let us pray that the gifts we have received as individuals, as families and as a country will be shared prudently. Pray, too, that our generosity will be guided by wisdom rather than by greed so that people everywhere will know: “The Lord made us, we belong to him.”
November 5, 2018
Answer call to be compassion of Christ in the world
A few weeks ago, Nike surprised Justin Gallegos, a member of the University of Oregon track team, with a contract naming him an official Nike athlete. The occasion made news not because Justin excelled in athleticism, but because, despite having cerebral palsy, Justin continued running, inspiring teammates and all who know him.
It didn’t matter that Justin came in last in most races. He learned early on that running made him feel better and so he continued to run. Justin is an inspiration to many, but Nike is also to be commended for choosing to celebrate someone who would never rise to the performance level of celebrity athletes.
Equally admirable, though perhaps more controversial, was Nike’s decision to name Colin Kaepernick a company spokesperson. Despite the controversy surrounding NFL players who take a knee during the National Anthem, Nike decided Kaepernick’s decision to risk a lucrative career on behalf of a cause he deemed worth fighting for deserved recognition.
The decision by Nike executives to reach out to these two athletes could not have been easy. Not unlike Gerber, who chose an infant with Down syndrome as the face of Gerber baby products, Nike’s willingness to choose those whom society often marginalizes and elevate them to a position of esteem is noteworthy.
Standing in sharp contrast with the negative image of corporations that cater only to profitability, the willingness of these companies to highlight unconventional contenders as role models reminds us that goodness exists in the world at large, often in places where we might least expect it.
In reflecting on the celebration of the Solemnity of All Saints, I was struck by the many good and even holy people who may never be canonized, and yet help make the world a better place. There are many such saints, and not all are sitting with us in the pews.
Last month the doors to a state-of-the-art homeless shelter opened in Virginia Beach. During the dedication ceremony, people from numerous faith traditions who had been working tirelessly behind the scenes on behalf of the least and often most alienated members of society witnessed a dream come true.
In addition to being offered a place to call home, residents receive job counseling and assistance in navigating services that will help lift them out of poverty. The facility stands as a beacon of hope in a world that for many seemed like an endless series of roadblocks.
It’s also a testimony to the fact that when government officials and people of faith work together, great things can and do happen. The dedication of visionaries who see the world not as it is but as it could be is proof that there is intrinsic goodness in people everywhere and in every age.
As Catholics, we come from a rich tradition of saints who took to heart the words of Jesus, “… whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mt 25:40). They are saints not because of what they have accomplished but because of the One in whose name they served. Some have paid the ultimate price of martyrdom, others have been reformers who founded religious congregations, hospitals and institutions of learning in the name of God.
But there are also ordinary lay people who have done extraordinary things, many whose names will never be celebrated. While not everyone may be called to heroic levels of sanctity, we are all called to be the compassion of Christ in the world.
It’s been said that heaven begins here on earth, which is why Jesus repeatedly told his followers that the Kingdom of God was in their midst. How and whom we serve depends on our life situation. Caring for a sick child or an aging parent, or supporting a neighbor during a time of crisis, might not make the news, but it makes the love of Christ visible to those being served.
Opportunities abound, but we need to be willing to move out of our comfort zone and act on them. It may not always be the easiest or most appealing path, but the joy and peace that God gives makes it well worth the effort.
St. Teresa of Jesus wrote, “Keep your eyes on the crucified One and everything else seems small.” When we focus on the love of Christ shining through those who need us, even the most trying situations carry with them the peace and forbearance that help us press on and do what some might consider impossible. And in the process, we just might become saints.
October 22, 2018
Why the Mass of Atonement is for all Catholics
Can you imagine a bride showing up on her wedding day in a stained and torn wedding dress? Most brides take every precaution to ensure their gown is not only stain free, but wrinkle-free as well. As a result, many churches now provide a room where the bride can dress, complete with a full length mirror, an iron, and an emergency sewing kit in the event of an unexpected wardrobe mishap.
But, suppose no such room was provided and an unexpected storm erupted, soiling the bride’s dress and reducing the carefully ironed fabric to a heap of wrinkles? How would the groom respond? Would he turn away in disgust or would his heart go out to his beloved standing at the entrance of the church in disheveled array? Would he long to wipe away her tears as he reassured his bride that his love for her could not be altered by a soiled wedding garment?
The analogy is worth pondering as the Church, which is the bride of Christ, comes together to celebrate the Mass of Atonement in response to the current sexual abuse crisis. The Church’s wedding garment has been soiled and reparation needs to be made.
As the Church continues its 2,000-year journey to celebrate the eternal wedding banquet in the heavenly kingdom, it is only fitting that we come before Jesus, the Bridegroom of the Church, and ask forgiveness for failing to take proper care of our wedding garment.
During a recent conversation, I was asked why the laity, who have had nothing to do with the sexual abuse crisis, should participate in the Mass of Atonement. As always, we need only look to Jesus for the answer. When the self-righteous wanted to stone the adulterous woman, Jesus responded by saying, “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone” (Jn 8:7).
Excusing our personal sins while pointing to the sins of others is nothing new. It’s why Jesus chastised his followers for trying to extract the splinter in another’s eye while ignoring the beam in one’s own.
While we may not have been guilty of the crimes committed by members of the clergy, we have all been affected. Sin corrupts the Body of Christ, of which we are all members. We have all sinned against the spotless Bridegroom who waits patiently for us to celebrate the wedding feast with him for all eternity, for we are all called to the marriage feast.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote more than 80 sermons likening the individual soul to a Bride of Christ, longing for the Bridegroom. St. John of the Cross wrote, “Every human being is invited to the mystical marriage with God. God sets forth his marriage proposal and patiently awaits the response of the bride.”
Each of us has a standing invitation to the wedding feast. We were issued the fabric for our bridal gown when we were baptized, but the garment in which we were clothed on that day has been soiled by sin. As individuals, we repair damage through the sacrament of reconciliation and receive the Eucharist as a means of grace in anticipation of the day when we will behold our Bridegroom face to face.
On our wedding day in eternity, every tear will be wiped away, and we will hear our Bridegroom greet us with the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the Kingdom that has been prepared for you since the beginning of time.”
As an institution, the Church, clergy, and laity gather for a Mass of Atonement. It is an opportunity for all members to make reparation to God, whom we have wounded by our sins, and to pray for healing for those who have been sinned against, either directly or through scandal that sin has caused.
No one is without guilt. However, the Good News is that just as the Father eagerly awaits the return of his prodigal sons and daughters, so the Beloved Bridegroom’s deepest desire is to be one with us in a relationship so intimate that the marriage metaphor of two becoming one is the only one fitting. In anticipation of this heavenly union, Jesus gave us the Eucharist and reassured us: “If anyone hears me calling and opens the door, I will enter his house and have supper with him and he with me,” (Rev 3:20).
May we never lose sight of the Bridegroom to whom we offer atonement in anticipation of the day when we stand spotless before the Bridegroom of our soul.
October 8, 2018
Let Christ’s light shine, no matter what caused darkness
There is nothing concealed that will not be revealed, nothing hidden that will not be made known. Everything you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight; what you have whispered in locked rooms will be proclaimed from the rooftops” (Lk 12:1b-3).
The words of Jesus addressed to the crowds more than 2,000 years ago served as a warning against hypocrisy. For much of my life, this Gospel passage evoked images of the Last Judgment. In my mind’s eye I would imagine myself standing before God and, much to my shame and regret, every sin that I had ever committed would be made public. However, with current revelations about sexual abuse in the news almost nonstop and the “Me Too Movement” gaining momentum, the words ring true regarding current disclosures.
Sins that were committed in secret are now being exposed on a regular basis as more and more women come forward with charges of abuse that took place years, even decades, ago. Accusations and denials have become part of the daily news cycle. Attacks and counterattacks fuel headlines while the abused and accused are tried in the court of public opinion.
It’s difficult to know where it will end, but one thing is certain. The process is painful for the victims and the alleged perpetrators, particularly when the accused and the accuser become political footballs and victims of a media frenzy that have little to do with victim advocacy or justice.
I was reminded of this a few days ago during a conversation with a friend who is an advocate for victims of sexual trafficking. Her heartfelt compassion for these women has been a source of inspiration. Her one desire for them is that they come to believe they are loved and loveable. This is no easy task for those who were robbed of their personhood, treated like an object to be used for another’s pleasure, and then cast aside.
As I reflect on her words and the mission to promote healing and wholeness she feels called to embrace, I wonder about the women whose names and stories are paraded across the television screen day after day.
What goes through their minds when the first response to their coming forth is suspicion rather than concern for their well-being? What effect will the public frenzy have on them and their families? What would it take to hold those who do harm to admit their wrong doing?
We can’t change the past, but we can learn from it. Hopefully, the pain that has brought us to this point will lead to greater transparency, no matter the cost.
In the Lukan passage quoted above, Jesus goes on to reassure the crowds they have nothing to fear. He tells them not to be afraid of those who harm the body, but only those who harm the soul. He reassures them they are loved by their Father in heaven, who is mindful of even the hairs on their head.
When people have been used, abused or wrongly accused, such reassurances fall on deaf ears unless words are accompanied by compassion and acceptance. When cries for help from victims of sexual violence are met with doubt or blame, silence and shame become life-long companions.
We might not be able to take their pain away, but neither can we remain silent bystanders. We might never meet the victims portrayed in the media; our paths might never cross, but we can pray for them and we can work for restorative justice within our own communities.
We know God hears the cry of the poor. We trust that God can heal deep-seated pain, regardless of the cause. Nelson Mandela once said, “The chains that bind the body are wings that set the spirit free.” His words are not simply spiritual platitudes; they remind us of the invincible power of God’s love and that we are called to let the light of Christ shine, no matter the cause of the darkness.
In his book, “Nine Essential Things I Learned about Life,” Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote, “God answers our prayers not by giving us what we ask for, but by helping us realize that we already have it.”
What we have, dear readers, is the love of God. As St. Paul so aptly reminds us, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God” (Rom 8:35).
May we draw strength and encouragement from his words during times of crisis and pain, and may we lead others to do the same.
September 24, 2018
Listen to voices of our better angels
We hear a lot about listening to our better angels. Amid attacks and counterattacks surrounding politicians and Church leaders, I am reminded of the illustration that depicts an angel clad in white, sitting on a person’s shoulder, whispering into an attentive ear.
On the opposite shoulder is the devil, pitchfork in hand, offering conflicting advice. The effect is enhanced by the cautionary expression on the angel’s face, which stands in sharp contrast to the devil, whose cunning smile offers a more relaxed and enticing invitation.
The message is clear: choosing good over evil is not always easy. St. Paul described it as a battle that was taking place within his members and lamented the fact he often did what he did not want to do and failed to do the good he wanted to do.
It’s a dilemma we all face, which is one reason why God has given every person a guardian angel. Angels and archangels are a gift from God. They serve as friends and companions on the journey, and their role should not be taken lightly.
The Church marks the presence of these noble patrons in the life of every Christian by celebrating the feast of Archangels Michael, Gabriel and Raphael on Sept. 29, and the feast of the Guardian Angels, Oct. 2.
Angels have always been part of the Judeo-Christian tradition, with some having their names recorded in Scripture multiple times. Michael is mentioned in the Book of Revelation for defeating Lucifer, casting him, along with the angels who defied God, from heaven.
As protector and champion of the Church, we call upon the wisdom and valor of Michael to guide and defend the institution from those who wish to diminish the Body of Christ.
Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she had been chosen to be the Mother of the Messiah reminds us the Incarnation of Christ ushered in a new day. And we look to Raphael, who accompanied Tobit on the journey, confident each of us has been given a guardian angel to travel with us and protect us.
Jesus spoke of the existence of angels on several occasions. In defending the children whom the disciples were trying to keep from him, he told them, “In heaven their angels continually look upon the face of God” (Mt 18:20).
As spirits, angels are not bound by limitations of space. Therefore, the popular picture of an angel hovering over a small child does not contradict Jesus’ words. In addition to protecting us from physical harm, guardian angels are entrusted with our spiritual well-being.
St. Basil wrote, “Besides each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to eternal life.”
In his sermons on the Song of Songs, St. Bernard of Clairvaux explained that angels act as messengers carrying our prayers to the throne of God and in turn deliver messages from God to us. Not unlike the angels that Jacob saw in his dream ascending and descending the staircase to heaven, they serve as intermediaries.
Books have been written, television shows produced, and songs have been sung about angels. However, the English fable about a flower dubbed “The Snowdrop” is a legend about an angel that I find comforting and enchanting.
The legend portends that when Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden, their punishment was to dwell in an eternal winter. However, knowing God was about mercy not punishment, an angel who had witnessed the verdict intervened.
As the snow began to fall, the angel turned a snowflake into a snowdrop, a tiny white flower indigenous to England that blankets the ground every February. The floral carpet that covers the English countryside is regarded as a symbol of hope, reminding people spring is coming, and love conquers all.
Clearly, the presence of angels does not negate free will. What we do and how we respond to everyday situations remains a personal choice, which returns us to the image of competing voices whispering on our shoulders.
Amid the noise of continuous opining in the media, we do well to turn our attention to the voices of those who reflect our better angels — voices that call us to rise above the clamor. Taking the high road may not always be easy, but we can be certain that in the end, our better angels will never disappoint.
September 10, 2018
For assurance, read God’s love letter to us
Its been said that Scripture is a combination of history, myth and poetry. The collection of accounts from the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament have been referred to as the Bible, the Word of God, the Good Book, and Christianity’s Holy Book.
There are others, but my favorite title is: “God’s Love Letter to His People.” Referring to Scripture as God’s love letter does more than identify the book by name and content. It elevates it to a unique status which engages the imagination, informs us of its purpose and alerts us to a living truth.
Consider the fact that no one receives a love letter and reads it only once. Be it in the form of an email, a text message or a handwritten note, words of endearment touch the heart of the receiver.
We guard such communications and keep them in a special place, savor the words and return to them often. Not only is the message carefully gleaned from the page, but we try reading between the lines, lest any subtleties or hidden meanings escape our notice.
We might imagine the person who is writing to us. What was the person doing, experiencing at the time and how should we respond?
It may happen that after reading and re-reading the words often, we are able to quote phrases or entire paragraphs. Repetition unconsciously enables us to commit treasured messages to memory, allowing us to call them to mind at will.
Aren’t those the same dynamics that should accompany our reading of Scripture? Likening Scripture to a love letter from God invites us to spend time with it, reading it for the head and again for the heart because both are important.
This became increasingly clear to me during these past months as I prepare for an upcoming adult education series on the City of Jerusalem.
Having read Scripture and numerous commentaries, I thought I had a pretty good idea of how to proceed. But as I began to look over my work, I knew something was missing. It read more like a history lesson than a love story.
Scripture is our family history, so when we read about our ancestors and their relationship with God, we do well to ask: How are we like them? What were the obstacles they encountered, what can we learn from them, and what do they teach us about God? When they strayed, how did God intervene and how does that reveal God’s unconditional love?
Unlike them, we have the benefit of knowing the end of the story. We know, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (Jn 3:16). We’ve heard this Scripture passage quoted often. However, if we are to understand the full impact of those words, we must allow them to seep into our heart because hearing them once, twice or even a hundred times is not enough.
Reading and rereading a passage from Scripture from the heart makes all the difference. The practice is referred to as Lectio Divina. It involves choosing a passage from Scripture, reading it once for the head and a second time for the heart. A third reading may consist of choosing a sentence from the passage for reflection and finally allowing a single word or phrase from the sentence to become one with your breath so you can return to it throughout the day.
Over time, those who faithfully practice this prayer form discover that words are no longer needed. Like lovers who enjoy the presence of the other without having to say a word, the presence of God is experienced in the heart on a conscious and unconscious level.
Reading Scripture as a love letter from God is as challenging as it is comforting because it’s not enough to simply bask in the consolation of God’s love. Knowing we are loved requires a response. There is a reciprocal dimension when it comes to human love relationships, but our relationship with God is of a higher order, and therefore requires a response on a personal and communal level.
We know this because when Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment, he replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 22:38-39).
We can love God and neighbor only because God loved us first. The best way to reassure ourselves of his love is by spending time with God’s love letter to his people.
August 27, 2018
People of God, pull together during current crisis
The topic comes up when talking with friends, family members and those who come for spiritual direction. To ignore the topic would be to avoid the elephant in the room.
At a time when too many people have already left the Church, the horrific practices by some priests and the cover-up by some bishops have added fuel to a fire that we have not been able to extinguish.
In addition to the pain perpetrated on victims, the consequences are considerable, including a rationale for some who have left the Church, and a justification for others who may be tempted to leave.
However, to interpret the horrendous scandal as a reason to do so is to confuse the Church with God. The Church is a human/divine institution guided by the Holy Spirit with Christ as the head, but it is composed of flawed human beings who bear the footprint of sin.
We are the Church, the People of God, whose identity extends beyond the ordained or those who serve in leadership roles. More than ever the Church needs all of God’s people, ordinary people who fill the pews and build the Kingdom of God in ways great and small. We are the Body of Christ and although parts of the body are diseased, we cannot abandon it and allow those who have degraded it to infect the entire body.
The behavior by those who have committed disgusting and vial acts on children either directly or by turning a blind eye to the needs of the victims is the work of Satan, an attempt to destroy the Church. In the end we know that God and good will always triumph over Satan, but God works through the human process.
As Church, we are part of the process. We have been commissioned by Christ to overcome evil, and so we need the sacraments, particularly Eucharist and reconciliation.
Purification is a painful process, but to walk away from the Church because of the sins of some is to give into Satan whose aim is to destroy the fabric of the Church. Walking away from the Church harms the entire Body of Christ. It weakens it and in so doing, we harm ourselves. We deprive ourselves of the life blood of the saints, those who worship with us and those who have preceded us.
During times of crises such as these, we need all of the faithful to pull together, praying for one another and interceding for faith-filled clergy who continue to steer the ship in turbulent waters.
We need to pray for victims whose lives have been destroyed and for those whose faith in God and the Church has suffered unimaginable pain. We need to encourage priests who take their vocation seriously, and for those who are being called to the priesthood, who may be having second thoughts because of the scandals. And we need to pray for Pope Francis, Christ’s Vicar who carries this burden on his shoulders.
As the Body of Christ, we are more than the Church on earth. We are united as one body with the saints in heaven and the suffering souls in purgatory. When the fullness of these voices unites in prayer, we are a mighty force, a living act of reparation.
Scripture tells us God hears the cry of the poor. Therefore, we can be certain the power of God will be unleashed and good will triumph. In the meantime, there are lessons to be learned and wrongs to be righted.
When Jesus was on earth, he publicly confronted hypocrites and religious leaders. No one was above the law. The time has come to begin anew. Healing is needed on many levels.
We can’t undo the past, nor can we ignore the pain of those who have been victimized. Disclosing the crime is a beginning, but more is needed. The root of the problem must be addressed for real change to occur, which is possible.
Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and with a sincere effort by the entire Church, lay and ordained, pain can give birth to a more vibrant, Christ-like Church where all the People of God stand together as pillars not only of the Church, but for the entire social order.
August 13, 2018
Assumption foreshadows what might await the faithful
When I was young and first learned about the Assumption of Mary into heaven, the image of Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty would come to mind. I was in awe of our Blessed Mother who was only asleep rather than dead, and one day God, not unlike Prince Charming, woke her with a kiss and had his angels carry her up into heaven where she now reigns as Queen of Heaven and Earth. The delightful image fueled my youthful imagination, but from a theological perspective it left much to be desired.
However, as St. Paul so aptly wrote: “When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things” (1 Cor 13:11).
Although I am certain that the apostle didn’t have the Assumption of Mary in mind when he penned those words, they could easily be applied to my childlike musings about the dormition of Mary. With the Feast of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven on Aug. 15 upon us, the topic of Mary’s dormition is timely, particularly since I’ve discovered that Church teaching about Mary’s end of life experience has often been misrepresented. While I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject, research has led me to understand that the Church has not reached a definitive answer on the topic.
The Assumption of Mary into heaven was declared a dogma of faith in 1950 by Pope Pius XII. It means that Mary’s body did not undergo corruption, but it was miraculously taken into heaven shortly after her life on earth ended.
However, in declaring the Assumption of Mary an article of faith, Pope Pius XII stopped short of saying that Mary did not die. Therefore, the question remains: Did Mary die or simply fall into a deep sleep before she was assumed into heaven?
In 1854, Pope Pius IX declared that Mary was born free from original sin, thereby adding the Immaculate Conception of Mary to the deposit of faith. Given the magnitude of that doctrine, it makes sense that Mary’s body would not undergo decay.
Not only was Mary free from sin, but her womb served as the first tabernacle for Jesus, earning her the title: Ark of the Covenant. However, as St. Pope John Paul II explained, “being free from original sin and its stain is not the same thing as being in a glorified, deathless condition. Jesus was also free from sin and its stain, but still experienced death” (L’Osservatore Romano, July 2, 1997).
According to the 20th century theologian Ludwig Ott: “Mary’s death was a consequence of her being human, not a punishment of sin.” He explained, “Mary’s death was in conformity with her Divine Son, who was also subject to the law of death.” Numerous theologians concur with Ott’s explanation.
Although the Assumption of Mary is the most recent declaration of faith by the Catholic Church, belief in her assumption into heaven can be traced to theearly Church. The “Transitus Maria” or the “Crossing over of Mary” was commemorated from the earliest days by the Church in the East.
In the writings of Psuedo-Melito of Sardis, dated 165-175 A.D. there is evidence of the belief that Mary’s body was lifted to heaven: “By the power of Your grace, it has appeared to us, your servants that as You have overcome death, do reign in glory so that You should raise up the body of Your mother and take her with You rejoicing into heaven.”
The term dormition, when applied to Mary, means that Mary died without suffering and in a state of spiritual peace. Some would liken that to falling asleep. Whether Mary died or fell asleep is not as important as the fact that, according to Christian tradition, those who visited her tomb three days after she was thought to have died, her body was no longer there nor was it be found elsewhere.
From a theological and faith perspective, the Church celebrates the Assumption of Mary as a foreshadowing of what the faithful may look forward to after the final Resurrection when our body and soul will be reunited to live forever in a glorified state. “Mary already shares in the glory of her Son’s Resurrection where she anticipates the resurrection of all the members of his Body” (CCC 974).
Therefore, we proclaim Mary, our mother, a sign of certain hope. The assumption of her body and soul into heaven is a comfort to the pilgrim people of God, which leads us to pray with confidence, “Mary, assumed into heaven, intercede for us!”
July 30, 2018
When tempted to give up, there is reason to hope
As the last of the 12 soccer players and their coach were rescued from the cave in Thailand, people around the world celebrated. For 18 days the global community held its breath as the drama, which had a dubious outcome, unfolded.
The survival of all 13 people against monumental odds was a testimony to the invincibility of the human spirit and the good that can be accomplished when multinational resources and expertise unite to help others. More importantly, it gave credence to the importance of hope.
With so much negativity in the news, the world was desperately in need of an injection of joy, which the smiles and thumbs up from these young people provided. In a world that is often too quick to give up on miracles, hope was restored in copious amounts.
No sooner had the success of the rescue mission been announced, another story made headline news. An airplane had crashed on a mountainside in Alaska and miraculously only minor injuries were sustained by the 11 passengers and crew aboard.
Then, as if that wasn’t enough, on the very same day, a 5-month-old infant, abandoned by a kidnapper and left to die in a wooded area, was found. The search and rescue unit admitted later that they began the mission with little hope of finding the child. One person said the search was like looking for a needle in a haystack until they heard the cry of an infant, which led them to the baby’s makeshift grave.
All three stories share one thing in common. When we think we know the end of the story, we don’t, and when we are tempted to give up, there is reason to hope.
Life is a process and it’s not for us to say when or how it will end. That’s God’s job and applies not only to people but to every living creature.
I am reminded of a story in “Waldon” by Henry David Thoreau that offers a wonderful illustration of this reality. According to Thoreau, there was a kitchen table in a farmhouse that had been made from the wood of an apple tree. After a number of years, a soft gnawing sound was heard coming from one of the table legs.
The sound was later attributed to a bug whose egg had been deposited in the tree while the tree was still alive. Over time, the warmth of the kitchen and heat from objects placed on the table acted as an incubator, the egg was hatched, and the insect was seen flying away after making its exit through the table leg.
Miracles happen every day. They surround us in nature, call to us through the predictable and unpredictable, and surprise us when we are on the brink of despair.
This is the beauty of hope. It is one of the three theological virtues, but it seems to me the virtue of hope is too often relegated to the afterlife. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines hope as “the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness” (CCC 1813).
Hope flows from faith and charity, and just as acts of faith and charity bring about the Kingdom of God on earth, so events that restore hope in temporal matters point to the presence of the Kingdom of God on earth. This is the purpose of miracles, but without faith we fail to recognize them.
Just because people are involved in helping to bring about a rescue effort or science can explain why an insect flew out of a table leg doesn’t make such happenings any less miraculous. After all, what could be more miraculous than God inviting the smallest of creatures and flawed human beings to be part of the miraculous process we call life?
The presence of an egg dormant in a table leg, the infant found in the woods, the rescues in Thailand and Alaska all speak to the human-divine partnership that is present and being revealed when the time and the right conditions dictate. How, when or why a miracle happens at a given time may not be for us to know.
Like the changing of water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana, some miracles are simply meant to gladden the heart, not unlike the sight of 12 young soccer players smiling for the television cameras. These 21st century miracles brought joy to the hearts of millions, gave the world a much needed injection of joy, and, in the process, turned tears of sadness into the wine of celebration.
July 16, 2018
Those seeking asylum have a right to life
Last week our usually tidy guest room looked as if a bomb had exploded in it. The cause? Our teenage granddaughters, ages 14 and soon-to-be 16, were visiting. Since they live in separate states, and get together only a few times a year, a joint vacation minus parents and siblings had been on their wish list for several years.
As it turned out, this was the summer that destination Virginia finally materialized. I’m not sure who was more excited, the girls or my husband and I. But as we look back on our time together, I must admit it’s the best staycation we ever had.
We went to the beach, Busch Gardens, and bicycled on the boardwalk. We ate out, had family in and hung out at Barnes & Noble while Callie and Olivia hit every store in the shopping mall. That was an actual goal.
It was a fun-filled and exhausting week, but the best part was spending time just chatting and getting to know our granddaughters better. While listening to the girls talk about school, their friends, their likes and dislikes, we were given a window into their lives that we are rarely privy to when the whole family gets together.
Their visit also provided an opportunity to tell stories and to listen to theirs, with the caveat that what is said in Virginia Beach stays in Virginia Beach. Our days together, now precious memories, were a time to bridge the generational gap and shrink the miles that separate us.
However, lest I give the wrong impression, let me admit up front that our family is far from perfect. Like every family, we have our share of struggles. As everyone knows, family life is a mixed bag where we learn to be tolerant of one another’s quirks, learn to forgive and let bygones be bygones.
The combination of good times and bad helps keep things in perspective — kind of like closing our eyes to a messy room when teenagers visit. Looking at the totality rather than focusing on what we find disturbing helps us to pick and choose our battles wisely.
In a prominent place in our home is displayed a framed print that our daughter Stephanie gave us after she was married. It reads:
Our family is a circle of strength and love.
With every birth and every union, the circle grows.
Every joy shared adds more love.
Every crisis faced together makes the circle stronger.
There is a great deal of wisdom in those words, especially when family life is under assault by many. The print stands as a clear reminder to appreciate challenges as well as good times, because both enrich our lives.
A few days after our granddaughters departed for home, we found ourselves in the emergency room with our son Andrew, who was injured on the job. As his wife, her parents and my husband and I took turns being with him, I realized how blessed our son was to have such a wide circle of support.
Having the support of family and extended family makes a difference. It is a reminder that blessings come in many ways. Having family to lean on helps put things in perspective.
Bearing with and leaning on one another lightens the load and strengthens us for the journey. We never know what the future will bring, which is why the family is different from any other unit.
It is a blessed and holy institution that mirrors the covenant relationship between God and the people of Israel, which was brought to fruition by Jesus and the covenant relationship he has with the Church.
With this understanding as a foundation, it becomes increasingly difficult to watch families being treated as a casualty when children are taken from immigrant parents with little thought or regard for the impact such trauma will have on young lives.
Decisions made in haste, driven by fear and the economy, fracture the very fabric of family life and will lead to further decline for every nation that turns its back on those who are seeking asylum, for they too have a right to life.
When Jesus said the poor will always be with us, he was not advocating that we throw up our hands or turn our back to the needy. He was warning his followers that to live by his teaching means poor will be with us because the poor is where we will find him:
“I was hungry, and you gave me to eat, thirsty and you gave me to drink, naked and you clothed me. I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Mt 25:25-35).
Could it be any clearer?
July 2, 2018
July 4th time for introspection, self-evaluation
As our country celebrates another birthday as an independent nation, it seems we have yet to discover the true meaning of freedom. We pledge our allegiance to one nation under God, but are we really?
Current divisions along lines of ideology, religion and ethnicity seem to suggest otherwise. The motto, “In God we trust” is exhibited on our currency, but is that really where our trust lies? Given the endless growth of the defense budget, we seem to place more trust in weaponry than in the peace that only God can give.
When natural disasters or man-made tragedies strike, sentiments such as: “Our thoughts and prayers are with you” tumble from the lips of leaders, even as social services to the poor are the first to go on the chopping block. Infants are murdered in the womb. Refugees of war and violence are left to fend for themselves. People with mental illness often end up homeless and those with addictions are incarcerated rather than rehabilitated.
Fortunately, this is not the only profile of our country. Consider the first responders who rush into burning buildings while others are escaping. Medical personnel, teachers and social service workers dedicate their lives and place the well-being of others before, or at least on par, with their own.
Countless NGOs and religion-based agencies and institutions stand as powerful witnesses to the divine DNA that exists in every human being. Our country has multiple profiles, and that gives us reason to celebrate. It’s not my intention to rain on Fourth of July parades, but to reflect on the noble aspirations of our Founding Fathers, who set aside differences and envisioned a path for the common good.
The birth of our country is a time to celebrate, but it should also be an occasion for introspection and self-evaluation. Our national heritage is rooted in a fundamental belief in God. It is incorporated in the Pledge of Allegiance, printed on the dollar bill and written into the Constitution. References to God serve as standard bearers reminding us that America will become great only when the law of God that is imprinted in the hearts of all becomes the law of the land.
For people of faith, who profess to believe in God, our country’s birthday should be about more than flag waving and fireworks. We who enjoy bounty and privilege are charged with a responsibility to respect life and the environment, promote peace, and help the most vulnerable members of our society.
All the world religions hold these beliefs as major themes. Jesus healed the sick. He reached out to the poor, the marginalized and public sinners. The Old Testament reminded Israelites that at one time they were aliens in a foreign land and, therefore, are to look with kindness on the foreigner in their midst. Almsgiving is one of the five pillars of Islam, and Buddha taught there is power in weakness.
These noble truths are easier to profess than to live, but as one nation under God, we are not alone. God is with us, but our relationship with God is not an exclusive one. There are no walls in the Kingdom of God, only bridges. When Jesus’ mission on earth was ended he charged his followers to continue what he began:
You have heard it said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to
you, “Love your enemies and pray for those
who persecute you, so that you may be
children of your Father in heaven,” for he
makes his sun rise on the evil and the good,
and sends rain on the righteous and on the
unrighteous (Mt 5:43-45).
The current and increasing climate of isolationism is cause for alarm. God’s love has never been exclusive, and neither should ours. As citizens of the world we have a global responsibility.
Our faith should transport us beyond national borders. We must be willing to reach across the political divide, especially when it feels more like the Grand Canyon than an aisle separated by a few feet of carpet. Jesus told us that nothing is impossible for God, and so we hope, we pray, and we must take action. (Thanks to the Virginia Catholic Conference action is only a click away at vacatholic.org.)
As our nation celebrates its birthday, let us join hearts and voices with people of every color, race and creed to make our country truly great, a shining city and a beacon of hope — not only for Americans, but for all God’s people. Only then will we truly be the land of the free and the home of the brave.
June 18, 2018
Transform your soul from weed patch to beautiful garden
One of my favorite, though admittedly more unlikely outdoor activities is weeding the flower bed that borders our backyard. Not only does it provide me with an excellent excuse for spending time outdoors, but it is one of the few partnerships with nature that produce instant results.
Unlike sowing seeds or bedding plants that require water, sunshine and time to transform an unsightly space into a symphony of colors, pulling weeds ensures instant results. It’s one of the few areas in nature that I can control with minimal time and effort.
With so much in life beyond my control, transforming a garden overrun with weeds into a tidy flower bed not only provides me with a sense of satisfaction, but the process invites reflection and prayer.
Being close to nature engages the senses, inviting us to better appreciate the work of God. The feel of the soil becoming one with our hands, the earth worm burrowing its way to safety, and the cacophony of sounds from birds and insects contribute to the sweet scent of nature in ways that are simple and profound.
Inevitably, as I set about pulling weeds, I am reminded of the parable of the weeds and the wheat in which Jesus urged patience, lest the wheat is mistaken for weeds.
Reflecting on the parable invites me to consider the events and, at times, the people in life who seem more like weeds than wheat. It reminds me that first impressions are rarely accurate, and that it takes time to get to know people. Thoughtful assessment and graced wisdom are required to see beyond immediate impressions and results.
As I tug on weeds whose roots run deep, requiring a trowel to remove, I am reminded that old habits die hard. I am reminded of the times I made snap judgments about others, only to learn I was wrong.
Roots that reach deep into the soil remind me that we are all formed and deformed by the events in our life, and in need of forgiveness. When I take the time to listen to the struggles of others, I can become the wheat of compassion rather than another weed in the garden of their life.
Just as challenging situations, when allowed to mature to their full potential, often turn out to be a blessing in disguise, so patience and understanding are vital to spiritual maturity. They are as necessary as water and sunlight are to flowers and fruit-bearing plants.
As I pluck the weeds from the soil, I am reminded that unlike plants that make their way to the trash heap, God does not dispose of us when we fail to bloom. In reflecting on the parable of the weeds among the wheat, I can acknowledge that even on my worst day I am surrounded by more flowers than weeds. God continues to plant flowers of every color and during every season to brighten my day, if only I take the time to look around and count my blessings.
After an hour or so of pulling weeds on my knees, I stand back and view with delight the transformation that has taken place. It serves as a reminder that spending time on my knees in prayer is just as important. If my relationship with God is to continue deepening, the inner work must be ongoing.
Unless I am vigilant, the weeds in my life will take over the garden of my soul. Vigilance requires honest self-examination. The obvious weeds I need to eradicate are not the faults of others, but my own faults, which seem to spring up when and where I least expect them.
St. John of the Cross compared removing obstacles that stand in the way of our relationship with God to cutting a weed off at the top. He explained that if we are to be perfect as our heavenly Father, we need to dig deep, and pull the weeds out by their roots; we need to discover the cause.
A prayerful examination of conscience helps to unearth the cause of our faults and failings, which are rooted in the seven deadly sins of anger, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony.
Once identified, the sacrament of reconciliation frees us from sin and allows us to start anew, knowing that only with God’s grace can the garden of our soul be transformed from a patch of weeds to a place of exquisite foliage.
During the summer months, when we have been blessed with an abundance of flowers, let us not lose sight of the fact that our inner garden deserves even more attention so that virtues may flower every day, all year long.
June 4, 2018
Sacred Heart of Jesus is full of love for us
The letters “MOW” appear on my desk calendar on the second Thursday of every month. “MOW” stands for Meals on Wheels, reminding me of a commitment my husband and I made several years ago.
As part of a cadre of volunteers, we deliver meals to people who are no longer able to prepare their own meals, but we rarely get to meet the recipients. We are often greeted at the door by a caregiver or instructed to place the meal in a cooler on the front porch because the person inside doesn’t wish to be disturbed. There are exceptions, of course, and last week was one of those days.
As I got out of the car, I was greeted by a sprightly woman, whom I had learned from a previous conversation was 91 years old and proud of it. As I got out of the car, she gingerly descended the front steps and called out, “Wait a minute; I’ll meet you half way.”
Thankfully, she was the last person on the route because I could tell she was in the mood to chat. Once she started, there was no stopping her. She told me about the farm where she grew up, about her deceased husband, and how happy she was that the flowering trees and perennials they planted early in their life together bloomed year after year with little effort on her part.
The delight she took in her yard was obvious. It wasn’t just the flowers, but the memories and the people that she associated with them. Before I left, she reminded me that I could help myself to any of the flowers or take cuttings from the bushes that turned her yard into a garden of delight.
The exchange I had with this dear woman came to mind the next day while reading about the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In the book, “Circling the Sun,” Father Robert Pelton wrote, “God revealed his heart and that heart is Jesus.”
Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God, the heart of God made incarnate forever in human flesh. He suggested that in the person of Jesus Christ, who is both human and divine, we are already half way to God.
According to Father Pelton, we would not seek God if we had not already found him. I had to think about that for a moment. The priest based his theory on the fact that God is always seeking us even when we are unaware. Salvation is universal, yet each person must make the journey to God individually and collectively as a member of the Body of Christ whose head is Jesus and whose heart is sacred.
As I reflected on the joy that was exhibited by my elderly friend, so young at heart, I could see Jesus shining through her smile as she called to me. I could almost hear him say, “Wait a minute; I’ll meet you half way.”
I am reminded that Jesus calls to us every moment of every day, and that each call invites a response. So, how do I respond? Do I approach him eagerly and joyfully or am I distracted or mired in the mud of doubt and disbelief?
Do I hear God reassuring me that I do not have to make the journey alone? Does knowing that fill my heart with gratitude?
The Father has given us his own heart in the person of Jesus and Jesus has given us his Body and Blood. Every Eucharist is an encounter with Jesus. He comes to us and we go to him.
When we receive him, we meet in a sacred embrace, a holy Communion that opens our eyes and gradually we begin to see him everywhere. We see Jesus in the people and in the events of our life because we understand God is always with us, and that we were never meant to make the journey alone.
We are participants in a human-divine partnership that respects human will. God never forces himself upon us, which means the relationship is our responsibility too.
God has given us the sacraments and Scripture and the heart of Jesus whose heart is inflamed with love for us. When we grow weary, or doubt our capability, which we all do, Jesus says, “Help yourself to the flowers in my garden. The graces in Scripture and the sacraments are yours for the taking.”
And when we get a little too big for our britches and think we can meet God on our own, we may just hear Jesus say, “Wait a minute; I’ll meet you half way.” Then he sends his Holy Spirit to remind us of Jesus’ words: “Apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5).
May 21, 2018
Wait, pray and be led by the Holy Spirit
Waiting is never easy. We look for the shortest lines at the checkout counters, drum our fingers against the steering wheel waiting for the traffic light to turn green, and scan the number of people ahead of us in the waiting room at the doctor’s office.
Although such occurrences can be annoying, they are mere inconveniences, nuisances we tolerate because we know that eventually we will make our way to the front of a checkout line, the light will change, and we will see the doctor.
However, when the outcome involves uncertainty, waiting can be stressful — even frightening. Consider students waiting to hear if they’ve been accepted at the college of their choice, the unemployed person waiting to hear from a prospective employer, or the patient waiting for the results of a biopsy.
Depending upon the seriousness of the situation, and the level of uncertainty, waiting in such instances is not merely an inconvenience. When faced with results that could be life altering, prayer quickly becomes part of the process. As people of faith, we typically pray for a positive outcome, and when the outcome is less than favorable, we pray for strength to meet the challenges that lie ahead.
It was no different for the apostles as they waited for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Before Jesus ascended into heaven, he told them they were to preach and baptize in his name, but first they were to remain in Jerusalem and wait for the Advocate whom the Father would send.
How or when this would happen was not revealed, but we know from the Acts of the Apostles that the apostles, along with Mary and a few women, returned to the Upper Room where, amid so much uncertainty, they waited and prayed.
They probably wondered and discussed what Jesus’ parting words meant. Who was this Holy Spirit and how would its coming impact their lives? It would seem there were plenty of questions but few answers, not unlike the questions Christians ask today.
As descendants of the apostles, we too have been entrusted with the mission to evangelize, but how and when to do that appropriately and effectively can create uncertainty. Therefore, prayer and waiting on the Holy Spirit is important, lest we run ahead of the Advocate.
Before Jesus began his public ministry, he spent 40 days praying and fasting. While engaged in ministry, he often spent the night in prayer or awoke early to be alone with the Father. Given the importance Jesus placed on prayer, it should come as no surprise that when he instructed the apostles to wait for the Advocate, they returned to the Upper Room and prayed.
Prayerful discernment has always been part of the Christian journey. Without prayer, we fall prey to the fallacy of our own ego strength, hide behind walls of good works or the safety of our own intelligence. Like the Pharisees in the Gospels, the false-self imagines it sees the face of God when it is merely gazing at its own self-will, a smoking mirror that blinds us and leads to self-righteousness. Evangelization is never about us.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul wrote that not all are called to be prophets, teachers, miracle workers, or have the gift of tongues, but we are all called to love. To love is our primary mission, but love is no mere human activity.
Only the Holy Spirit can fill us with the fire of God’s love; like the apostles, we must prepare by waiting and praying. We come before God with empty hands, owning our sins because humility is the fuel God desires to set our hearts ablaze. When the Spirit fills us with the fire of God’s love, we can be certain we will receive the gifts needed to share that love with the world.
As modern-day disciples, it is not enough to believe in Jesus’ message, and then do as we please. We must follow him into the desert and into the quiet places of our heart. We gather with community and watch and pray with him in the Garden of Olives so we can follow him to Calvary.
Life is filled with challenges and uncertainties, and we will never have all the answers to all the questions, but if we wait and pray, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done,” we will be given the strength and wisdom to go forth, led by the Spirit, confident of God’s love and blessed by his presence.
May 7, 2018
Blessed Mother does for children what we fail to do
Do you remember what day it is?” queried the voice on the other end of the phone.
My mind drew a blank, but the caller, whose voice broke under the weight of emotion, reminded me that it had been one year since she delivered her baby and placed him for adoption. My heart went out to this mother who was only 16 years old when she gave birth to her son.
Stacey came to live with us when she was in the fifth month of her pregnancy. During the months that followed, she quickly won her way into our hearts. As her labor coach, I was able to be with her during her delivery, watch her hold her son, kiss him and then let him go.
One year later, with memories of her son’s birth etched deep in her heart, she picked up the phone and told me, “I just needed to talk to someone who was there.”
Nothing I could say would ease her pain; all I could do was listen. I was sorry that I had not remembered. I should have called her, but as I look back on that day I realize that it was that special bond between Stacey and her child that impelled her to call. It was the love of a mother that surpasses any other love.
During a recent tribute in honor of the late Barbara Bush, I was reminded once again of the many ways mothers demonstrate that unique bond of love. In 1990, while speaking to the graduates at Wellesley College, Bush reminded the women that life is full of choices. Then she cautioned them about priorities and values that will impact those choices.
The renowned matriarch noted that at the end of life, we will not regret missed academic or career opportunities, but we will regret not having spent quality time with family and those we love.
Both mothers, one a 16-year-old teenager and the other a 92-year-old great grandmother, gave witness to the choices they made, decidedly different and yet each embodied the wisdom that comes with being godly women. Not unlike the mother in the story of Solomon, who gave up her son rather than have him killed, Stacey chose her son’s well-being over her desire to cling to him.
Bush, whose appearance at Wellesley was protested because her only claim to fame was her role as wife and mother, required a different set of choices. Both women demonstrated the sacrificial love that is required within the context of a mother/child relationship.
There are times when letting go requires more heroic virtue than holding our children close. Few mothers experience letting go the way Stacey did, but as we accompany our children through various stages of development, knowing when to let go is a sign of wisdom.
No relationship demonstrates this conundrum more clearly than motherhood, which binds mother and child emotionally, physically and spiritually. It is little wonder then that the prophet Isaiah used the analogy of a mother’s love when speaking of God’s love for us:
“Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget you, I will never forget you” (Is 49:15).
No one can appreciate these words more than mothers. As I reflect on this passage, I realize there are times when my love has been less than perfect, less than I would have liked it to be, which causes me to turn to our Mother Mary, God’s own mother, and place our children in her care. I take comfort in asking her to do for them what I fail to do, not willfully, but because of my human limitations.
As a mother and grandmother, I realize that I will not always be able to protect those whom I love or be there for them, which is why I go to Mary, who is the perfect model of motherhood. Just as Jesus knew we need to look to God as Father, so he understood our need for a mother who is always attentive and able to intercede for us and for those we love.
Although Mother’s Day was instituted as a secular holiday, it need not end there. It seems providential that Mother’s Day is celebrated during May, the month dedicated to our spiritual mother.
As we honor our earthly mothers, let us never lose sight of our heavenly mother, whose love for us is but a reflection of the love God has for each of us — a love that can only be compared to, and alas exceeds, the love a mother has for her children.
April 23, 2018
We continue to learn from, be inspired by Rev. King
In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the death of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., much was written about the vision, courage and commitment of this formidable man of God. Rev. King was not simply a great American, he was a prophet and martyr, and I suspect that if he were Catholic, the process for his beatification leading to canonization would already be underway.
In advancing the Kingdom of God, Rev. King aligned his life with Gospel imperatives of justice and peace, and consequently paid the ultimate price. Half a century later, we continue to learn from his example and are inspired by his words and his life.
When the civil rights leader emerged on the national stage, the racial divide was not part of my life. I was a young adult living in a predominantly white city in the north and viewed the movement from a distance, tacitly watching as scenes from cities across the southern United States made the evening news.
Like many Americans, I lamented Rev. King’s assassination, but it is only recently that I am beginning to grasp the depth of his passion and commitment to the poor and marginalized. Rev. King’s vision took him beyond the racial divide and into the plight of all who are held hostage by bigotry, economic dominance and racial supremacy.
His life and death, like the Master in whose footsteps he walked, stand as a stark reminder that rejection, betrayal and death continue to be the price that some are asked to pay, but never in vain. Rev. King’s legacy serves as a testimony to the Paschal Mystery as an ongoing event, not only in the life of Christ but in the life of every person of faith.
Amid racial tensions, ongoing violence and the plight of the working poor, much remains to be done. The mission continues as a clarion call meant to energize rather than depress people of faith because building the Kingdom of God, initiated by Christ on earth, did not end with him. It was only the beginning, a cause to rejoice, as the Easter season proclaims, because our Redeemer lives and is calling his followers to don the mantle of justice and peace in his name.
The Acts of the Apostles testify to the post-Resurrection mission, and those who have seen the movie: “Paul, Apostle of Christ,” can appreciate the suffering and persecution that the early Church endured.
The Church on earth may be referred to as the Church militant, but it is not a mission that can be won through violence and munitions. True evangelization is about peaceful confrontation with all that is anathema to the Kingdom of God.
As evidenced by his “I Have a Dream” speech, Rev. King understood the power of peaceful resistance. Decades later, his words echo, immortalized in the hearts and minds of young and old alike, but they cannot simply remain Rev. King’s dream. Until his dream becomes the dream of every American, it will have little effect.
During the past month I have read and reflected on Rev. King’s words, those spoken at the march in Washington, D.C., and those from the speech he gave the evening before he died. His proclamation — that he had been to the mountaintop and seen the Promised Land — was more than oratorical eloquence. The scriptural imagery was profoundly mystical.
The mountaintop has long been associated with the place where people encounter God. Moses viewed the Promised Land from the mountaintop though he knew he would never enter. Less than 24 hours after Rev. King said he may not enter the Promised Land, he was dead.
Against the advice of friends, and knowing his enemies were growing in number, Rev. King went to Memphis to stand on the side of justice with sanitation workers. Surely he knew death was inevitable, just as Jesus knew that crucifixion would be his lot when he went to Jerusalem.
When Rev. King first donned the mantle of justice and peace, he could not have imagined where his passion would take him. In retrospect, his appearance at the first civil rights gathering in Atlanta was providential. He went because he learned, after the fact, that it was being held at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he was pastor.
When he addressed the people that evening, little did he realize that he would become the voice of justice and nonviolence for generations to come. Rev. King understood that to be passionate about God means being passionate about God’s people — a passion that gave birth to a dream that ignited a nation.
As beneficiaries of that dream, people of faith cannot ignore the obvious questions: How far will I allow my passion to take me and what price am I willing to pay? Dreams inspire, but action makes them happen.
Rev. King embraced both, inspiring all who long for a better world to stand with this faithful disciple of Christ and say:
“I have a dream that all God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we are free at last!’”
April 9, 2018
Share the Good News that Jesus lives
Human interest seems to have a penchant for the sensational, which means headlines matter. They beckon from newsprint, websites and bookshelves that brandish the latest best seller. Their bold print captivates our attention and, before we know it, we are well into the story.
Words are powerful, so when we examine the Easter narratives written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the existence of four different versions surrounding the most sensational event of all time can be problematic. The simple explanation is: They were written by different people at different times and for different audiences, but Scripture scholars suggest another theory which invites a closer look.
Consider that the Gospel of Mark offers two accounts. In the first he tells of three women who went to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus. Upon arriving they find the stone has been rolled away and are so startled by a man, clad in a radiant garment, sitting to the right of the empty tomb, that despite his instruction to go tell the disciples and Peter that Jesus has been raised, they are paralyzed by fear and do nothing.
In the later account, Mark has Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene, who runs to tell the disciples that Jesus is risen and is going to Galilee, but she is not believed.
Luke’s account has a group of women traveling to the tomb where they find two men in dazzling garments who ask them why they are seeking the living among the dead. The men remind them of Jesus’ teaching that the Son of Man would be crucified and rise on the third day. They leave immediately to tell the apostles what they have witnessed, but alas, their story is dismissed as an idle women’s tale.
Then there is Matthew, who has Mary Magdalene and another Mary at the tomb witnessing an earthquake and an angel descending from heaven, who rolls the stone away. The guards who were stationed at the tomb are so shaken that they faint dead away.
Meanwhile, the angel invites the women to go tell the disciples that Jesus who was crucified has been raised from the dead and goes ahead of them to Galilee. On their way, Jesus appears to them. They embrace him; he tells them, “Do not be afraid” and repeats the angel’s instruction to tell the disciples they are to go to Galilee where they will see him.
The final account is offered by John, who places Mary Magdalene alone by the empty tomb. She runs to tell Peter and the others; Peter and John hurry to the tomb, where they discover the burial wrappings from Jesus lying in the empty tomb and they believe. Peter and John leave, and Mary stays behind weeping. Moments later, Jesus appears as a gardener whom Mary recognizes only when Jesus calls her name.
So what actually happened? Which account is true? In order to extrapolate the truth from the story, it is important to understand the art of storytelling among ancient Jews. The incidentals were superfluous to the main event.
Jesus, who was crucified and raised from the dead, is the story. Everything else is parabolic, meaning they may or may not have happened as described, but provide insights about how the event was received.
I admit that for a long time I thought the women in the resurrection story got the short shift. I couldn’t see past the fact that while the men remained in hiding, the women went to the tomb, and yet were not believed.
The problem with that perspective is that I was viewing the accounts through the lenses of women’s rights issues and our uphill battle to be taken seriously. I was allowing incidentals to stand in the way of the main event, which was that through his resurrection, Jesus’ death was vindicated and good triumphed over evil.
By today’s standards, the headline for Easter Sunday would read: Jesus Is Raised from the Dead and Is Lord of Heaven and Earth! Clearly, the Easter pageant is about Jesus. The others are merely supporting actors in a drama they were slow to understand.
The various accounts represent human blind spots that are part of every faith journey. The take away for Christians is not who was first to arrive at the tomb, who was believed and who was ignored, or whether Jesus appeared first in Jerusalem, Galilee or Emmaus. The incidentals tell us as much about ourselves as they do about the early disciples. They tell us we are all slow to believe at times, and that each person comes to believe differently and at different stages along the way.
The stories were not written as biographical accounts about the holy women who went to the tomb, or about Mary Magdalen, Peter or John. They were written for believers of all ages who struggle with the same obstacles the first followers of Jesus encountered. They remind us that grief, fear and doubt can keep us from recognizing Jesus.
All the people mentioned in the Easter event eventually came to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, each in his or her own way, and so do we. Like the disciples of old, we walk by faith, seeking Jesus who is risen. Once we find him, we too are called to share the Good News that Jesus lives!
March 26, 2018
Celebrate, because our Redeemer lives!
Can you imagine what it was like for the followers of Jesus to witness his last days in real time? With everything they hoped for falling apart, it must have been a heart-wrenching experience.
Jesus’ closest followers were simple people, mostly uneducated fishermen, a tax collector, and some relatives, along with a few women of means and a woman from whom seven devils had been cast out. The best thing they had going for themselves was that they dropped everything to follow the Lord.
They could never have imagined the kind of life Jesus was calling them to embrace. They didn’t understand his healing ministry was a precursor for healing humanity’s wounds, or that the multiplication of loaves was a foretaste of Jesus, Bread of Life.
Yet, amid doubts and uncertainty, they continued to walk with the Master, amazed by his miracles and mesmerized by his message, veiled though it was.
As Jesus became increasingly confrontational toward religious leaders, his followers must have grown uneasy. Peter tried to discourage Jesus from going to Jerusalem, but to no avail. Instead, Jesus called him Satan, and entered Jerusalem amid cries of Hosanna, knowing that Roman authorities were quick to crucify anyone who posed a threat to Caesar.
The early disciples braved unchartered terrain where little made sense. The language of the Old Testament prophets was cryptic, and the words of Jesus were increasingly obscure. How different it is for us!
As the liturgical drama of Holy Week unfolds, and Calvary reaches its zenith in Easter glory, I can’t help but wonder how I would have responded if I had been among those faith-filled men and women. Would I have left everything to follow the Lord or would I have watched from a distance, cautiously avoiding his gaze?
Would the initial excitement about Jesus’ healing power have worn thin when danger seemed immanent? When confusion came knocking, would I have sought his counsel, or would I have been among those who walked away?
What would I have said about his preference for the poor, the marginalized, the sinners and when he asked, “Who is your neighbor?” how would I have responded?
The only way any of us can know how we would have reacted in biblical times is to examine the way we live our life. As Christians, we like to think we would have embraced the Master’s teachings when he traveled the roads of Galilee.
But how are we doing? When I read the Gospels that describe Jesus’ passion and death, bold assumptions fade, and doubt sets in amid a sea of mea culpas.
St. Teresa of Avila advised her nuns, “Fix your gaze on the Crucified and everything else becomes small.” The wisdom behind her proclamation holds true for every age, for when I behold our dying Lord, concerns and anxieties disappear under the shadow of the cross.
When I scan the hill outside the walls of Jerusalem, an area that served as a garbage dump, where the Savior of the world was hung, I am humbled and horrified by what my eyes take in. Apart from the Mother of Jesus, the beloved disciple and a few holy women, only the Roman soldiers and a few self-righteous Jewish leaders were left standing, privileged to gaze upon the Crucified. I wonder if I would have been among them.
I ponder the words “Ecce Homo” (Behold the Man) that were uttered by the Roman procurator who also ordered the epitaph: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” nailed to the cross, and wonder why God used him to proclaim so profound a truth.
Beneath the tree of life, blasphemers cast lots and were awarded Jesus’ seamless garment, a thief was promised paradise and a soldier responded to Jesus’ cry, “I thirst.” When Jesus breathed his last, and the temple veil was rent, it was a Roman centurion who declared, “Truly this was the Son of God” (Mt 27:54).
Jesus had a penchant for choosing the most unlikely people to surround him in life, so it should come as no surprise that it was to non-believers that he extended the privilege of surrounding him in death. Throughout his life, Jesus overturned conventional wisdom, and did the same when he was dying, forever reminding us that just when we think we understand all there is to know about God, we have only just begun.
I am at a loss to explain such merciful inclusivity except to know that God is Father of all. In God’s family, there is no room for jealousy, condemnation or sibling rivalry. Everyone is invited to draw near.
Times have changed, but human nature has not, nor has the tendency to create God in our own image, and according to our likeness. Amid wars and famine, natural disasters and violence, we turn to lesser gods to deaden the pain. We lose sight of God’s eternal reach, washing humanity’s soul in a sea of love that transcends time.
Unlike the early disciples of Christ, we know that Jesus’ death was only the beginning; more than 2,000 years later, we stand on the shoulders of those early disciples, pondering the great mysteries that bridged the chasm between humanity and divinity, love and hate, hope and despair. And so, we celebrate because our Redeemer lives!
March 12, 2018
For St. Patrick, life was about faith, not luck
I don’t claim to be an expert on national folklore, but it seems as though no other country or saint is surrounded by as much mystique and widespread celebration as Ireland and St. Patrick’s Day. From shamrocks and casting out snakes to leprechauns and kissing the Blarney Stone, stories and legends abound. That might explain why my induction into Irish culture took place in the Bible Belt while living in Savannah, Georgia.
The unlikely mix of Irish humor and Southern hospitality could be attributed to the fact that Irish clergy have long enjoyed an impressive footprint in the South. For centuries, Irish bishops, who were blessed with an abundance of clergy, sent priests to the southern United States, where Catholicism was all but unknown. Today, Irish priests still maintain a viable presence, especially on St. Patrick’s Day, when the celebratory mood invites people, regardless of their heritage or religion, to claim a wee bit of the Irish in their family tree.
However, unless we separate fact from fiction, we do a great disservice to the saint whose love for God inspired an entire country. And who better to set the record straight than the saint himself who penned the “Confession of St. Patrick” more than 16 centuries ago?
Like the “Confessions of St. Augustine,” it serves as a confession of faith more than a confession of specific sins, and it provides a brief account of Patrick’s early life and conversion. He was born into a Christian family in the western part of Roman Britannia. The date of his birth is unknown, but the saint wrote that he went to Ireland as a missionary in 430 or 431. He began writing his confession by introducing himself as a “sinner, very rustic, least of all faithful and very contemptible.”
Patrick acknowledged that although his father was a deacon, as a youth, the future saint was not interested in God. At age 16, he was kidnapped and taken to Ireland as a slave, where he remained for six years tending sheep. During those years of isolation, Patrick turned to God, whom he realized he had offended.
Becoming aware of the presence of the indwelling Trinity, he spent long hours in prayer. He wrote that, at 22, he was told by a voice to return to his homeland and that a ship awaited him a short distance away. Whether he was awake or asleep is not clear, but Patrick, convinced that it was the voice of God, escaped, found the ship as he had been told, and was granted free passage.
After several days at sea, Patrick was reunited with his family, who were filled with joy. Embarking on the clerical path, he was schooled in the faith and made a bishop, but just what the studies entailed is uncertain. Patrick described himself as an unlettered man, crediting his knowledge of God to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, rather than to any human source.
He noted that his decision to return to Ireland was not without interior struggles and external trials, which he concluded was God’s way of freeing him from being overly concerned about himself. Once his sole concern was focused on the salvation of others, he embraced his mission and announced, much to the displeasure of his parents, he would return to the land of his captivity to convert the pagans.
Despite his lack of learning, the saint was able to teach the great mysteries to those who had never heard of God. He is perhaps best known for his use of a shamrock, which he used as a visual aid in teaching about the Trinity.
Patrick wrote that he baptized thousands of people, but credited God with their conversions. He established multiple communities of consecrated virgins after a woman told him she wanted to dedicate her life to God. Recognizing this as a great grace, he encouraged other women to do the same.
His praise for the Trinity runs throughout his writings and, despite his works being criticized for their lack of rhetorical style, his words seem more poetic than prose at times.
Working tirelessly until the end of his life in 461, St. Patrick testified that he never accepted any gifts that were given to him because he wanted to give freely the gift of faith that had been given to him. This saint, who asked nothing for himself, gave without reserve because he saw Christ everywhere and in everyone. The “Breastplate of St. Patrick,” one of the prayers that is credited to him, bears this out.
Christ with me / Christ before me /Christ behind me / Christ over me / Christ to the right of me / Christ to the left of me / Christ where I lie down / Christ where I sit / Christ where I rise / Christ in the heart of everyone who judges me / Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks to me / Christ in every eye that sees me / Christ in every ear that hears me.
This prayer could serve as a breastplate for Christians everywhere. We are indeed indebted to this great saint for his contribution to the Church, which had nothing to do with luck.
February 26, 2018
Trust God that all will be well
I hung up the phone and breathed a sigh of relief. I had just canceled a surgical procedure that had been scheduled for the end of March. It was semi-elective surgery, a hip replacement, which the surgeon decided was in my best interest. That was last November.
However, between his schedule and mine, the end of March was the earliest possible date upon which we could agree. He had an opening in February, but that’s when my life got extremely busy. With several Lenten retreats and parish presentations on my calendar, there was no way I could commit to a procedure that would require several weeks of rehabilitation.
On the bright side, I joked with my husband that my Lenten penance had already been determined. My real concern was whether I would be able to honor commitments I had made, especially those that involved travel. Trusting in the Lord, I decided that if God wanted me to do his work, he would provide. He did.
A notice in our parish bulletin announced that a healing Mass with the sacrament of anointing of the sick would take place on Dec. 6. With surgery pending and my symptoms becoming more problematic, I decided to attend. I prayed for the strength to honor commitments I had made long before my hip became an issue. When I came forward to be anointed with holy oils and the priest prayed over me, I was at peace.
It wasn’t until a day or two later I realized the pain had decreased dramatically. I was able to lift my leg in a normal fashion, whereas prior to receiving the sacrament I had been unable to lift it more than an inch off the ground. With each passing day the pain lessened; within a week, my symptoms had disappeared. At that point, I questioned the need for surgery, but was still reluctant to say anything.
As Catholics, we tend to emphasize the spiritual healing and inner peace that accompanies the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. Physical healings, though possible, are not the norm, nor are we taught to expect them. I certainly didn’t.
Yet, there was no doubt my healing also had a physical component. I decided to take a wait– and–see position. However, after more than two months of being symptom free, I knew it was time to let the doctor know I no longer needed a new hip.
In recent months, I’ve had time to reflect on whether I should share this experience in so public a venue. To date, only my family and a handful of people knew about the healing. But the more I prayed about it, the more it seemed that sharing what God had done was not only appropriate, but a Gospel imperative.
As a whole, Catholics tend to hold their faith a bit too close to the chest. I admit I am guarded when it comes to disclosing the way God is working in my life, and choose carefully what I will share with others, be it in conversation, writing or during presentations.
Perhaps through this healing, God is nudging me to be a bit more forthcoming in proclaiming the power of God in our midst, and that miracles happen every day.
Another reason I was reluctant to share what God had done was my concern for others. How would those who attended the Mass and received the same sacrament feel if they continued to suffer? But the more I prayed about it, the more I understood that God gives each person what is needed at any given moment.
I can’t say for sure why my symptoms disappeared. It may have something to do with my writing and retreat ministry, which places me in a position to reach more people. Or, it may just be that my faith is weak, and God decided I needed a miracle to strengthen it.
We will never have answers to every question that arises, and as my surgeon’s assistant noted when I related all that had transpired, “Sometimes it’s best to not ask why and just be grateful.” Her words echoed one of my favorite sayings from St. Francis de Sales, who counseled against asking why some people receive one gift and not another.
In his typically easy-to-understand fashion, the saint wrote, “Why is a strawberry small and a melon large? Why is rosemary not a rose, or a dianthus not a daisy? Why is a fig sweet and a lemon sour, or a peacock grander than a bat? Such questions are absurd.”
The fact is we can never fully know the designs of God or understand when or why divine power is unleashed. Some things are simply beyond our knowing. For now, the best line of questioning is that of St. Paul who wrote, “Who has known the mind of the Lord or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him so as to receive a gift in return?” (Rom 11: 34-35).
Clearly, everything we have is a gift and every gift is given, not because we are deserving, but because of the generosity of God, whose wisdom is unknowable and whose love is without end. For this reason, we place ourselves in God’s hands and trust that all will be well.
February 12, 2018
Fast or celebrate on Feb. 14? Do both
This year, Ash Wednesday presents a bit of a dilemma for Catholics, or does it? With the first day of Lent falling on Valentine’s Day, some may wonder whether they should fast or celebrate. However, a closer look at both days reveals how one compliments but enriches the other, since both have their origin in the Garden of Eden.
In Genesis, we are told Eve was created to be a companion for Adam. Theirs was to be a love relationship modeled after the love relationship of the Holy Trinity, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Gen.1:26). They were instructed to bear fruit and multiply, a natural response because when authentic love is mutual, it becomes life-giving.
God also instructed our first parents to fast and abstain. They were told they could eat from all the plants in the garden, but were to abstain from fruit growing on the Tree of Knowledge.
The intimacy Adam and Eve enjoyed with one another was a gift from God, but it was subject to the law of God. More than satisfying the human desire for physical pleasure, they were being called to a higher standard — one that involved obedience to the Divine Creator.
We know how that ended. Blinded by pride, Adam and Eve believed the great lie that they could become gods. In deciding to have it their way, they fell from grace and took all of humanity with them. Granted, the story is not to be taken literally, but it symbolizes a truth we must take to heart.
The physical law is subject to the Spirit, not the other way around. When that order is usurped, we become less than we were created to be. We experience this in ourselves and witness it in the world at large. Whenever human passion reigns supreme, love becomes perverted and our relationship with God is thwarted.
Given the rise of secularism within our culture, distorted versions of love seem almost normative. Therefore, Lent offers the opportunity to reorder priorities and inject a spirit of repentance and sacrifice into our relationship with God so that we can better celebrate human love relationships.
The choice between celebrating Valentine’s Day and respecting the injunction to fast and abstain from meat should be a no brainer. The two are not adverse; rather one illumines the other.
When we come forward to receive ashes on our forehead, we are reminded of our origins and of the length to which God went to reverse humanity’s alienation from God. John’s Gospel says it best: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” (Jn 3:16). Our salvation depends on the sacrificial love of God, which serves as the model for all love relationships.
Sacrifice is an important part of every authentic love relationship. It’s what elevates love from a self-serving, feel good kind of experience to an act of self-giving that becomes a life-giving reality.
The Church’s understanding of Valentine’s Day has always been rooted in the sanctity of marriage and the sacrificial dimension of love. Although there is much legend surrounding St. Valentine, most hagiographers (those who study the lives of saints) note the feast honors the life of Father Valentine, a third century priest who was imprisoned and martyred on Feb. 14, somewhere around 269, for marrying couples according to the Christian Rite. This was in violation of Roman law.
With this as a backdrop, it makes sense to celebrate Valentine’s Day with those we love, while remaining faithful to the Church’s injunction to fast and abstain from meat. I’m not suggesting that dining on lobster or your favorite sea food instead of steak fulfils the Ash Wednesday obligation. A candle light dinner over a tuna sandwich can be just as romantic when the relationship, not the food, becomes the focus of the celebration.
In fact, it becomes even more meaningful because in being faithful to fasting and abstaining, our relationship with God is a viable part of the celebration. Given the fact that this year the observances share the same day, it could well be the year when we allow the Church calendar, rather than the retail industry, to guide our understanding of the true meaning of love.
Rather than sharing a box of chocolates for dessert, why not indulge your spouse, children or a close friend by sharing stories and memories about special moments? Dusting off your wedding album could be one way to begin.
Or how about reliving a favorite event or vacation with the children by looking through family photo albums, or sharing stories about a parent or grandparent who is no longer with you?
Although Lent takes on a somber tone liturgically, it need not be a gloomy time. Given the fact we know the end of the story, that we have been saved through the death and rising of Jesus, Lent should be a time of hopeful anticipation. It’s a time to express our heartfelt gratitude for all the graces received and for the people in our lives.
One way to do this is by offering small sacrifices in union with the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. In so doing, we unite our heart and the hearts of all those whom we hold dear, lifting them to the heart of God, our Valentine for all eternity.
January 29, 2018
Accept your role in living, spreading Word of God
Do you feel depressed after watching the news? If so, you’re not alone. The negative effects on the human psyche from excessive news consumption have been well documented. With satellites circling the globe, acts of terror, natural disasters and political discord are transmitted via the media all day, every day.
When talk show hosts and guests opine over the latest “breaking news” event, I find myself wanting to inject the line 1950s television character, Detective Joe Friday, immortalized: “Just the facts, ma’am, just stick to the facts.”
The words became a signature phrase of the “Dragnet” series whenever those being questioned tended to editorialize or embellish a situation that was under investigation.
Oh, how I long for the days when those who were prone to sensationalize or over simplify were reminded in no uncertain terms that opinions carry little weight. But that was then, and this is now, which means that each person must take control over their viewing habits.
Some have given up watching news altogether, though I’m not sure that’s the solution. Rediscovering the off button on our TV sets, computers or hand-held devices is one way to moderate our news intake. Another is by keeping an eye on the clock to know when enough is enough.
Being informed about current happenings is one thing, but being enslaved by them is quite another. By far the most helpful approach is to strike a balance, and nothing counters bad news as effectively as reflecting on the Good News Jesus preached and commanded us to spread.
The word “Gospel,” literally translated “Good News,” was eventually applied to the writings attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John about the teachings and life and death of Jesus. However, anyone who is familiar with the four Gospels knows there are discrepancies in the detailing of accounts the evangelists offer. But let’s be clear: this is not about alternate facts or fake news. It is about symbolism and thematic emphasis.
The Gospels were never meant to be historical or biographical accounts. They were written for those who already believed in the Resurrection of Jesus and had accepted the faith. Some were Jews, others were Gentiles, but all were part of an emerging Christian community that ironically expanded in a world rife with bad news.
Gospel and New Testament writers wrote for specific audiences. In today’s lexicon, we could say that each was playing to his base. However, having four Gospels was not about cultural bias, nor was it a way for one writer to include what the other three left out.
Each Gospel is distinct. Taken together, the Gospels provide a testament to the fullness of Jesus’ relationship to the Father, to the people of his time and to people everywhere for generations to come.
The letters in the New Testament were written as teachings and exhortations directed to Hebrew Christians and to Christian communities in Rome, Corinth, Ephesus and elsewhere. These early believers struggled with many of the same issues that confront us, which makes the New Testament timeless.
Regardless of the audience or the details which were included or omitted, the message of Scripture is the same: God loves us, God is with us and the Kingdom of God is in our midst. Unlike mere human offerings, Scripture is the Living Word of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit to guide Christians.
During the apostolic and post-apostolic era, becoming a Christian meant putting your life at risk. While this is still the case in some parts of our world, most Christians will not face physical martyrdom. Nevertheless, internal and external temptations abound and cultural mores that contradict Christian values continue to challenge and threaten our spiritual well-being.
Therefore, the Gospels and letters in the New Testament remain invaluable to Christians of every age. They instructed and supported the newly-formed Christian communities that struggled to keep the faith within the context of their culture, and they serve the same purpose for Christians today.
Christianity is not about providing an alternate view of reality, nor is it meant to serve as an escape from the world. Jesus came into the world to redeem it, not to condemn it. Therefore, it is up to each person to discover the sacred within the secular, the extraordinary within the ordinary and the supernatural within the natural.
If we truly believe the Kingdom of God is in our midst, then we know we have only begun to realize the fullness of what that means. But for those who have eyes to see, God’s Kingdom is being revealed daily — not only in churches, but in hospitals and soup kitchens, in refugee settlement houses and in the hundreds of buses that gather annually every January in Washington on behalf of the unborn and the most vulnerable members of society.
As people of faith, we can’t afford to get bogged down by bad news, especially when the Catholic media industry is doing its part in conquering bad news with the Good News all day, every day. And the good news is: we all have a role to play in living and spreading the Word of God.
January 1, 2018
Our only real failure is failure to love
On the first day of January, as Americans ushered in the New Year with noise makers, parades and football games, the Catholic Church took a different approach — the one it takes annually. It began 2018 with the Feast of the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God who ushered in a new age for humankind.
Mary’s fiat was a new beginning for humanity, the dawning of a new age, one which reversed the act of disobedience by our first parents. In response, Catholics gather for Mass to praise and give thanks to God for the gift of Mary, who is called Blessed among Women.
In the recently published book: “In God’s Hands: The Spiritual Diaries of Saint John Paul II,” the saint referred to the Mass as the “Sacramentum Messiae” (Sacrifice of the Messiah), a phrase which invites ongoing reflection. The sacrifice of the Mass is not limited to the Upper Room or to Calvary, but commemorates the act of redemption which began with the promised seed of a woman in the Garden of Eden, was acted upon through the Incarnation, and completed through the death and resurrection of Jesus.
As the title of the book suggests, the collection of reflections, written in the saint’s own words, provides an account of the man’s personal faith journey through notes and ongoing commentary. It also offers theological insights that serve as windows into St. John Paul’s soul about his relationship with God and his deep devotion to Mary.
In one of his early entries, while reflecting on the Mass, the pope was taken with the image of Jesus “alone with the Father and before the Father,” but he didn’t stop there. He included Mary in this privileged inner circle, attributing to her the distinct honor due the person who made the redemptive act possible.
Mary participated in the act of redemption through her fiat. Her total gift of self to God prompted her every thought, word and action, and ultimately defined her life. In a similar way, Mary invites us to participate in the act of redemption in ways that are both simple and profound. All of us are called to discipleship, and who better to lead us than Mary, who was closer to Jesus than any person on earth.
Little is known about the life of Mary, but reading between the lines of what is recorded in Scripture, we can imagine that as a young mother, Mary’s life was quite ordinary, not so different from ours. Mary understood that it is not what we do, but the love with which we perform the duties of our life that lead to holiness.
It is worth noting that the last words of Mary recorded in Scripture were: “Do whatever he tells you.” One small sentence that has the potential to transform the world if only we would heed her counsel.
As we look at our world, it is easy to become discouraged, but there is nothing holy about giving in to cynicism or despair. Instead, we turn to Mary, whose hope never wavered despite her many trials.
Mary knew what it was like to live under foreign occupation by a pagan government. She knew what it was like to flee to a strange land for safety, to witness corruption among religious leaders and to watch as they schemed to put her Son to death. Through it all, Mary held fast to her belief and trust in God.
Mary understood that peace is a process, and that it requires reconciliation more than weapons. The peace of God is not the peace the world gives. It is a gift from God and is available to all who ask for it.
Mary triumphed over evil, not with a sword in her hand, but with a sword through her heart. And so, we take comfort in Mary, Queen of Peace, knowing that if our heart breaks at the sight of victims of war, genocide and persecution, we are in good company because Mary’s heart breaks, too.
It is fitting that the day dedicated to the Mother of God is also designated as World Day of Peace. This year, Pope Francis asked the faithful to contemplate the plight of migrants and refugees of the world, and to gaze upon them with love.
But the Holy Father noted contemplation should lead to action. Therefore, he asked us to embrace all those fleeing from war and hunger, forced by discrimination, persecution, poverty and environmental degradation to leave their homelands.
The pope asked us to welcome the stranger by expanding pathways to immigration and protect them by recognizing and defending human life. He asked us to provide access to education and cultivate dialogue. Finally, he asked that we help with the integration of immigrants and refugees by advancing their participation in society through enrichment programs.
When I contemplate Mary, these are actions I can imagine she performed in her own small way. With the help of God’s grace, we can — and must — do the same. If at times it seems we fail, Mary reminds us that the only real failure is a failure to love. And so, we pray: Jesus, living in Mary, come live in us now and forever. Amen.