Friday, October 21, 2016

7 Lessons from Pope John Paul II

Narrowing down the lessons taught by Saint John Paul II to a mere 7 is a nearly impossible task. These are the 7 things that have most touched me - please feel free to share how he has impacted your life in the comments below!

Do not be afraid.
"Brothers and sisters, do not be afraid to welcome Christ and accept his power....Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors to Christ." These words, spoken by Pope John Paul II during his inaugural homily on October 22, 1978, are perhaps the most well-known words of his entire pontificate. They resonate deeply in the heart of each of us because they challenge us to overcome a nearly universal fear - the fear of the Lord's demands. I am not referring to the gift of a holy fear of the Lord - that is a virtue which enables us to experience awe and wonder at the majesty of God. I am speaking about the fear in our heart of what surrender to the Lord Jesus will require of us.

What habits will I have to give up to follow Jesus? What changes will I need to make in my day to day life? What challenges will I face if I truly submit to the Lordship of Jesus? What hurts will I have to forgive? Will I be persecuted? These are some of  the questions that I have asked myself over and over again. Pope John Paul II, through his constant repetition of this theme, has provided me with the fatherly "push" that I needed both to begin and to persevere in my spiritual journey. His exhortation urges all of  us to throw open the doors of our heart and mind in complete and total surrender to Christ. Most of all, the witness of the Holy Father's life was one of a  lived-out fearlessness  - his life was permeated by a constant openness to the will of Christ, no matter what the cost, and that witness continues to urge us forward today.

Bring the best and the worst of yourself to Christ.
"...the man who wishes to understand himself thoroughly - and not just in accordance with immediate, partial, often superficial, and even illusory standards and measures of his being - must, with his unrest, uncertainty, and even his weakness and sinfulness, with his life and death, draw near to Christ. He must, so to speak, enter him with all his own self; he must 'appropriate' and assimilate the whole of th reality of the Incarnation and Redemption in order to find himself. If this profound process takes place within him, he then bears fruit not only of adoration of God but also of deeper wonder of himself." (Redemptor Hominis)

WOW!. That quote is sure a mouthful (and a mindful as well). I have simultaneously wrestled with and meditated on this quote for several years now. What strikes me the most about the Holy Father's words is the necessity of entering into Christ with everything we are - both good and bad. For years I subscribed to the thought that I needed to be perfect in order to approach the Lord. Because of this assumption, I found myself hiding my sins and weaknesses from God much in the way that Adam and Eve covered their nakedness in the Garden after they sinned. The reality that the Pope points out is that we need to bring everything to Christ - the good, the bad and the ugly- in order that he may forgive, heal, purify and cleanse us. Once my thinking shifted and I was able to begin to live out these words - my life changed dramatically in just the way the Holy Father described. When I was able to bring the worst of myself to Jesus, and realize that it was met with mercy and love, my response was to shout the praises of God from the rooftops!

Prayer of petitions are worthy prayers.
I have often heard that prayers of petition are a "less-desirable" form of prayer and should somehow become more limited as one grows in relationship with the Lord. That concept has always bothered me, because somehow I feel as if the closer I get to the Lord the more I realize my total dependence upon him for everything and, consequently, the more my prayer is filled with petitions of various kinds. I was so excited to find this quote from Pope John Paul II in Jason Evert's book: Saint John Paul The Great - His Five Loves"There was a time when I thought that one had to limit the 'prayer of petition.' That time has passed. The further I advance along the road mapped out for me by Providence, the more I feel the need to have recourse to this kind of prayer." Thank you Papa for the blessing of your example of the merit of prayers of petition.

Pray, pray and pray some more.
Images of Pope John Paul II lost in prayer are so familiar to us. His prayer life is legendary, both in the amount of time he spent praying and in the intensity of his prayer. Again, Jason Evert vividly describes his prayer life saying:
"Prayer was the rhythm of the Holy Father's life. He made time to pray before and after his meals, and interspersed his Breviary prayers (the Liturgy of the Hours) throughout the day and night, calling it very important, very important. At six in the morning, at noon and again at six in the evening, he would stop whatever he was doing to pray the Angelus, just as he had done while working in the chemical plant in Poland. He prayed several rosaries each day, went to confession each week, and did not let a day pass without receiving Holy Communion. Each Friday, (and every day in Lent), he prayed the Stations of the Cross"
Pope John Paul II's prayer life is inspirational and challenging. It provides us with a powerful lesson on the connection between holiness and prayer. We must seek to meet the Lord in deep personal prayer each day in order to strive for the heights of holiness which the Holy Father achieved. I find myself asking for his intercession to help develop my own routine that punctuates the day with times of prayer and reflection. Saint John Paul the Great, pray for us that we might grow to imitate your devotion to the Lord through prayer.

Hold the bar high with love.
I was 11 years old when Pope John Paul II was elected. For my entire adolescence and all of my young adult life, he was the only Pope I knew. And despite the fact that I was living a life far away from the Lord during most of those years, he was always compelling figure for me - passing the cynical "sniff-test" of my youth. I don't think I am alone in my reactions to him. His ability to draw stadiums full of screaming teenagers was one surpassed by few rock stars.

So what exactly was it about the Pope that was such a powerful attraction for young people? For me, it was his ability to hold the bar high while maintaining a loving, encouraging attitude towards the youth he encountered. The Pope believed in the ability of young people to follow the radical demands of the Gospel. Instead of echoing the culture's dismay over the state of the youth, he challenged them. At one World Youth Day he exhorted his audience: "Remember: Christ is calling you; the Church needs you; the Pope believes in you and he expects great things of you." Young people, for their part, responded to him in love, in gratitude and in ardently striving to meet the challenges he set down before them.

Pope John Paul II's example provides a powerful lesson for us as adults and parents.  Like him, we must reach out to children and youth with the full message of the Gospel, while also verbally cheering them on to meet the demands of Jesus' message. All people respond to a challenge, and young people especially gravitate towards the heroic as they search for meaning in their lives. Pope John Paul II provided that for them, and the response of those young people to him is still bearing fruit in the church today.

Forgive those who hurt you.
One of the most memorable teaching moments of Pope John Paul II's pontificate for me was when he met with Ali Agca, his would-be assassin, and offered words of prayer and forgiveness. Part of me simply recoiled at the notion of the Holy Father forgiving this man. I wanted to shout - "NO! He tried to kill you!" Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, who was the Holy Father's secretary, wrote in his book "A Life with Karol" about the meeting between the two saying Agca "never asked for forgiveness".

What would compel the Holy Father to continue to offer forgiveness to a man who never asked for it? The answer is simple - the Holy Father was imitating Jesus, who offered forgiveness from the cross to all those who never asked for it. In that moment of meeting with his potential assassin, Pope John Paul II was demonstrating to the world that it is possible to live out the Lord's imperative in the Sermon on the Mount: "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." (Mt 6:44) In moments when I am having difficulty forgiving others for far more minor offenses, I think of the Pope's example and pray to the Lord for the strength to imitate him.

Suffering, infirmity and old age does not rob one of inherent dignity.
Watching the once strong, athletic and vigorous Pope John Paul II physically deteriorate right before our very eyes taught me one of the most profound lessons about the dignity of every person. It was heartbreaking to watch the Holy Father hunched over, barely able to speak the words of the Consecration at Mass, his head bobbing and his hands shaking. Yet, in his physical frailty he seemed to exude a supernatural power and peace. It was clear that despite all the abilities that Parkinson's disease had stripped from him, it had never changed what was essentially him. In the years that have passed since the Lord called the Holy Father home, I have witnessed several close relatives suffer a diminishing of their physical abilities due to age and illness. Through the example set by the Holy Father's courage in continuing to present himself in public in spite of his frailty, I have learned to see past the external withering away of a loved one's body to see the person who still remains in all their dignity. I am grateful for his witness to the beauty of life in all ages and stages.

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Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Emergency Procedures

The following are seven suggestions for viewing your family's "Emergency Procedures" through the lens of your Catholic faith:

1.  Emergency Procedures
Calling 911 in the event of an emergency is a procedure I have drilled into the heads of my children since they were old enough to talk. It is second nature to most of us that this is the first thing we should do in the event of an emergency, fire, crime, poisoning or other calamity. We call 911 to quickly alert those who are in a position to help us that we are in trouble and first responders are dispatched immediately to come to our aid. The system is universal and virtually foolproof -but is it enough?

As human persons we are comprised of both temporal and spiritual components. Calling 911 addresses the temporal side of an emergency - we need to have procedures that address the spiritual side of the emergency.

2. Spiritual Emergency Procedures
You may be thinking  - what on earth would constitute a spiritual emergency? Aren't spiritual issues something we can just wait until Sunday Mass or our next confession to take care of?. I would submit to you that anything that qualifies as a temporal emergency, should also be addressed as a spiritual emergency.

Don't merely call 911 in an emergency - call also upon the Lord, the Blessed Mother, the Communion of Saints and the Heavenly Hosts of Angels  - our supernatural first responders. 

3. Specific Spiritual Emergencies.... Here are a few circumstances that always get my family and I marshaling up the help of Heaven with short prayers:
  • The sound of a siren.
  • The sight of an hearse.
  • Passing a hospital or funeral home
  • Turning onto the campus of a church (we live in the 'burbs) - you can do this when you pass a church
  • Witnessing someone with a physical, emotional or spiritual disability.
  • Finding ourselves in a situation that is difficult, uncomfortable or unsafe. 
  • Beginning a long car ride. 
  • Learning of a friend (or even a stranger) struggling with an issue or in need of intercession. 
  • Reading about a tragedy in the news. 

In these situations, our family may pray a Our Father, a Hail Mary or a Prayer to St. Michael along with a request in our own words for the Lord's assistance and presence. 

4. Blessed Mother Teresa's Emergency Novena
Some situations in life are so difficult and challenging that they require more than a quick "prayer".  A serious accident or illness, the death of a loved one, loss of a job, addictions and more require persistent prayer and trust in the Lord for his help and the grace to endure the cross. One of my favorite forms of persistent prayer is Blessed Mother Teresa's Emergency Novena.
"Fr. Andrew Apostoli, CFR, Yonkers, NY re-counted his first meeting with Mother Teresa in New York. Fr. Andrew has given retreats for the Missionaries of Charity contemplative sisters in the South Bronx on several occasions. On our first meeting, Mother Teresa gave me a rosary and commented that "the Blessed Mother is all over the world bringing people to Her Son." She told me a story stating, "whenever I need a special favor, I do an Express Novena. An Express Novena is 9 Memorares in a row." (source: EWTN)

5. The Memorare (x9)
The Memorare is a simple prayer acknowledging the graciousness of the Blessed Mother and her steadfast help for her children in need. Relying on her maternal love and mercy, the prayer requests her intercession for our petitions.

The origin of the Memorare is unknown but it is thought to have dated back to the 12th century and is sometimes attributed to St. Bernard of Clairvaux. It was made popular by another French priest, Fr. Claude Bernard in the 1600's, who used it extensively in his ministry to the poor and prisoners. (source: Preces-Latinae)

I vividly remember Sister Mary Austin teaching my 4th grade class this beautiful, simple prayer and it has always been a favorite of mine.

6. Enlist Some Prayer Warriors
As Catholics we don't have to live as lone-rangers. By virtue of our Baptism, we are part of the Body of Christ and we can rely on other members of that Body for prayer and support. It has been a great source of comfort, consolation and encouragement to me to be able to reach out to a few trusted prayer warriors when I need some "back-up prayer" for a particular issue. I know these faithful friends will intercede from their heart for my intentions, as would I for theirs. Being able to support another person with prayers, especially during difficult times, is a source of blessing and a living out of the Jesus's great commandment to love our neighbor. If you don't have your own prayer warriors - enlist one today by asking a friend to be prayer partners and then pray for one another's intentions. 

7. Is this in your Wallet?
While we are on the subject of emergencies, I have told my husband, children, friends or anyone else who would listen, to please, please, please call a priest if I am ever in danger of dying - even before you call a ambulance (or at least at the same time).

As Catholics, we believe in the power of the sacraments, and in particular the Anointing of the Sick.  The Anointing of the Sick is a sacrament of healing that can and should be received not only in the case of imminent death, but also whenever there is a serious threat to one's physical health. It is important to make any wishes that you have to receive this sacrament known to your loved ones before you are in any serious danger of death. Too often, Catholics are denied the reception of this sacrament because their loved ones do not know of their desire to receive it, and do not fully recognize or believe in the power of the sacrament.

A good practice is to carry a card in your wallet that specifically states: "I am a Roman Catholic. In case of emergency, please contact a Roman Catholic Priest." If possible, include the phone number of your parish rectory on that card. Your soul is worth it.
Visit Allison at Reconciled to You and Elizabeth Reardon at Theology is a Verb for more #worthrevisit Wednesday posts.

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Monday, September 26, 2016

The Teaching Power of the Parish Bulletin

You read that title right.  I know, I know  - you must think I am out of my mind - I mean, does anyone even read the parish bulletin anymore? 
I believe that the parish bulletin provides a unique tool which can aid in illustrating how the teachings of the Church are lived out in a practical, local way.  Inexpensive, readily available, and easy to use, the average parish bulletin provides a wealth of examples which can assist students of all ages to recognize how the church’s teachings “work” in the parish community they call home.  
Here are seven tenets of the faith that can be illustrated using the parish bulletin: 

The Sacraments
Dates, times and locations for the celebration of the Sacraments can be found in nearly every parish bulletin.  After completing a lesson on the seven sacraments, have your students scour the bulletin to find information for each of the sacraments.  Ask them to try and identify which sacraments are celebrated most frequently – this can lead to a fruitful discussion about how some sacraments can be received only once, some more than once but also infrequently, and some on a regular, even daily basis. 

The Scriptures
St. Jerome’s famous axiom “Ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ” can be the basis of your using the local bulletin to underscore the importance of scripture in the life of every Catholic. Most bulletins list the citations for the daily Mass readings.  Some bulletins even contain reflections on the Sunday readings. Have your students search for all references to the Scriptures in their local bulletin – if they are old enough, ask them to look up several of the citations in their Bibles and use those readings during prayer time.

The Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy
Perhaps no teaching of the Church is more easily illustrated in a parish bulletin than the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy.  Activities such as faith formation (instruct the ignorant), pastoral counseling (counsel the doubtful) and the bereavement ministry (comfort the sorrowful) provide vivid examples of a few of the Spiritual Works of Mercy.  The parish food pantry (feed the hungry) and even the advertisement for the local funeral home (bury the dead) can illustrate some of the Corporal Works of Mercy.  Encourage your students to find examples of all the Works of Mercy and challenge them to see how they might participate in one of these ministries of the parish.

Intercessory Prayer
Praying for others is a holy act of charity that even the youngest child can readily understand. Your parish bulletin can highlight the fact that as a parish community we are all called to pray for each other.  Many parishes list the members of the community who are sick. Often, parishes will list the Mass intentions, which are most frequently offered for deceased members of the community. This provides a great opportunity to discuss the doctrine of purgatory and the merit of praying for our loved ones who have died.  Invite your students to find these names in the bulletin and then incorporate these intercessions into your family prayer time.  

The Communion of Saints
Devotion to the saints and reliance on their prayers is an integral part of Catholic life. The bulletin is replete with opportunities to discuss the saints. If you are a member of a parish that is named after a saint, make learning about the life of that saint part of your religious studies.  Have your students search the bulletin for groups named after a particular saint, or devotions being offered to a saint.  These too can be used as springboards for the study of the virtues and the unique contribution each saint made to the treasury of the Church. 

The Church’s Hierarchy
Most parish bulletins have a listing on their covers of the Pastor’s name, as well as any other priests and deacons assigned to the parish.  The bulletin may also list the name of the Bishop of the Diocese and even the name of the Holy Father.  Having students look through the bulletin of their own parish as well as other local parishes for the names of these members of the Church’s hierarchy is a great way to personalize the titles of “Bishop”, “Pastor” and “Deacon”.  The activity can be extended by looking at the Diocesan or parish website to place a picture with the names. 

The Four Marks of the Church
The four marks of the Church (one, holy, Catholic Apostolic) can appear very esoteric.  After explaining the characteristics of the four marks, ask your students to find evidence for the four marks of the church in the bulletin.  Examples include: the sacraments for one; prayers and devotions for holy, references to the Bishop or Pope for Apostolic, and missionary activity or RCIA for Catholic.

Using your parish bulletin as a teaching resource has benefits beyond a mere pedagogical tool.  By exposing students to the bulletin they will begin to understand the breadth and the depth of the life of the Church and see how their participation in the activities of the local parish is an integral part of their lives as Catholics.  

This post originally appeared on Seton Magazine.
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Tuesday, September 20, 2016



When I hear this word images of a raging, hot, unstoppable fire are immediately brought to mind.  When something is ablaze it is visible and radiant and very much contagious - eager to consume all that it within its reach. The connotation is not always positive.  A raging fire can be a very scary, dangerous thing indeed. 

Why then do the Scriptures, and the saints, and even contemporary Christian music challenge the believer to be ablaze?  Christian music artist Ben Walther's anthem "Ablaze" provides us some insight to the nature of being Ablaze in the Christian life. Take a listen to his powerful song here:

Fire Purifies

In Zechariah 13:9 we read:
"I will bring the one third through fire, and I will refine them as silver is refined, and I will test them as gold is tested. They shall call upon my name and I will hear them. I will say "They are my people," and they shall say, "The Lord is my God."
Our hearts and minds need to be set ablaze by God's purifying fire in order to be refined of our sins, and our bad habits and our twisted thinking - of selfishness and greed and unforgiveness.

The process, quite frankly, stinks.

Purification is painful.  It is challenging and humbling to face our sins; it is HARD to revisit the hurts of our lives in order to forgive those who hurt us, and it if often a long and tedious process to break the bad habits that keep us from full surrender to Jesus. The results of this process however, like the precious gold and silver which emerge from the fire, are radiant and precious.  Allowing the Lord to set us ablaze in order to purify us creates a new "us" that is a credible and compelling witness to God's love and mercy.

Fire Illumines the Darkness

In the Israelite's journey out of Egypt the Lord made his presence known to them in a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night: Exodus 13: 21-22 tells us:
"The Lord preceded them, in the daytime by means of a column of cloud to show them the way, and at night by means of a column of fire to give them light."
The Lord's presence in the column of fire lit up the darkness so that the Israelites could safely travel through it.

Ben Walther's song begins with these words: ""By his grace we are conceived to be mercy, to be peace, to be light amidst the darkness."

Our mission as Catholics is to carry within us the presence of God, a presence which will be a column of fire for those who walk in darkness.  At our Baptism we received an anointing to share in Christ's anointing of priest, prophet and King.  Through that anointing we can bring the light of Christ, his mercy and his peace to others.

Lighting up the darkness for someone else doesn't have to be complicated.  It may be as simple as a kind word, an invitation to a retreat, dropping off some spiritual reading to the person, or simply being a shoulder to cry on. When people ask us about our faith, we can shine that light through humbly sharing what the Lord has done for us.  Above all, it involves praying for those around us who dwell in darkness.

Set the World on Fire

St. Ignatius of Loyola often challenged his missionaries with the Latin phrase: ite, inflammate omnia—“go, set the world on fire.” One of St. Catherine of Siena's most quoted sayings is "Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire." 

What are these great saints asking us to do?

They are asking us to surrender and submit to the will of God in our lives - to give our lives totally over to him, so that, like John the Baptist, we may decrease and Christ may increase.  It is only through this self-surrender that we can be filled with the Holy Spirit and go out as ambassador's of God's love into a hurting world.

The words "set the world on fire" speak to us - they inspired Ben Walther to write his song Ablaze.  I believe there is something deep within all of our hearts that longs to see the world set ablaze in the fire of God's love. We can imagine the brilliance of a world blazing with the roaring fires of faith, hope and charity.  How awesome would it be if those fires consumed everything around them - leaving nothing but the pure gold of God's will alive in every heart.

Journal Starters

I'd like to leave you with a few journal starters to bring to the Lord in prayer.

  • Lord Jesus, what areas in my life need to be purified by your "refiner's fire"? I ask you to reveal those areas to me, and I ask for the grace to allow me to cooperate with the purification you desire.
  • Dear God, please show me how I can be a light in the darkness to those around me. Give me the strength and the holy boldness to help lead others out of slavery into the light and the freedome of Christ.
  • Lord Jesus, stir up in my heart a desire to "go and set the world on fire." Reveal to me the unique plan you have for my life and the way that you most desire for me to be an ambassador of the fire of your love to a hurting world.

Visit Allison at Reconciled to You for more reflections on Ben Walther's powerful music. To learn more about Ben visit his website!

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Saturday, September 3, 2016

5 Ways to Spiritually Prepare for the New School Year

This article was originally posted on Seton Magazine. While this post is written from my own perspective as a homeschooling family, most of the suggestions can be used regardless of where your children go to school.

September is nearly upon us and for most families that means a return to the regular school-year routines.  As parents, we expend considerable energy, effort, time and money in preparing for the upcoming school year – ensuring that our children receive the best education, the most well-rounded set of extra-curricular activities and do it all in style (who can resist that dizzying array of colorful backpacks). It is not as often that we prepare ourselves spiritually for the upcoming school year, and yet, as the old axiom wisely states: Failing to plan is planning to fail. Here are five ways you can prepare yourselves and your family spiritually to enter the new academic season with the Lord at the center of your academic life.
1.       Bless your books and your home.
Invite your parish priest or deacon over to bless your books and your home, particularly the area you will be using for homeschooling.  This provides not only the grace of the blessing itself, but it gives your children an opportunity to interact with their priest or deacon outside the parish setting and allows your priest or deacon to get a glimpse into the “hows” and “whys” of homeschooling. 

Parish priests are busy people, so if your local priest is unavailable, consider inviting a retired priest over. They often have more time available to spend sharing their years of accumulated wisdom with families. 
2.       Wipe the slate clean with a good Confession.

Like the brand new books and haircuts that accompany the start of a new year, it is equally important to have our souls scrubbed and shining as we begin any new endeavor. Summer vacation and its unpredictable schedule can often lead to regular confession times being missed or delayed.  Beginning the school year provides a great opportunity to get back to a regular confession schedule.  Pope Francis describes the spiritual and temporal benefits experienced by the person who has just made a good confession saying: “he leaves (feeling) free, grand, beautiful, forgiven, candid, happy. This is the beauty of confession.”[i]

3.       Go to opening day Mass as a family.
The first day of school is always one met with great anticipation and excitement. Make it a truly special day by attending morning Mass together as a family or along with other homeschooling families.  By attending Holy Mass, we consecrate our entire day and all the activities within it to the Lord and we receive innumerable graces from the Eucharist, graces we can draw upon when the days get long and tough. 

St. JoseMarie Escriva says: “Keep struggling, so that the Holy Sacrifice of the Altar really becomes the center and root of your interior life, and so your whole day will turn into an act of worship — an extension of the Mass you have attended and a preparation for the next. Your whole day will then be an act of worship that overflows in aspirations, visits to the Blessed Sacrament and the offering up of your professional work and your family life…”[ii]

4.       Pick a patron saint for the year.
Every homeschool needs a patron saint whose example and intercession can be both a model and a source of strength for the entire family.  Pick a new patron saint to dedicate the upcoming school year too.  As part of your curricula, the entire family can learn about that saint through books and movies.  Encourage your children to identify and imitate the saint’s virtues.  Most of all, place your homeschool into your patron saint’s special care and pray for his or her intercession daily.

5.       Enlist the help of the “simple saints.”
In a General Audience address on holiness, Pope Benedict referred to the example of what he called “the simple saints, that is, the good people I see in my life who will never be canonized. They are ordinary people, so to speak, without visible heroism but in their everyday goodness I see the truth of faith.”[iii] We all have “simple saints” in our lives, and they are often longing for opportunities to be of spiritual assistance to others. The start of the school year is a great time to enlist their help – ask the “simple saints” you know to pray for your family and in particular for your homeschool. 

Throughout the course of the year, reach out to them when situations arise which require extra prayer.  Keep them updated on how your family is doing, and thank them for their efforts by praying for them and inviting them into your home to share a meal. As the Body of Christ we rely on each other’s prayers and this is a great opportunity to share our lives with those in our wider Catholic community.

Armed with prayer, the sacraments and help from the Communion of Saints your family will ready to begin a new year open to all the possibilities for growth and glory that the Lord has planned.

[i] Pope Francis, General Audience Address, February 19, 2014
[ii] St. Josemarie Escriva, The Forge, #69
[iii] Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience Address, April 13, 2011

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