Saturday, December 24, 2016

"The Thrill of Hope": Reflections on O Holy Night

Fun fact alert!  

I read in the book, Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas , that O Holy Night was the very first song ever to be broadcast over the radio waves on Christmas Eve 1906, launching a completely new platform for music to be transmitted and enjoyed.  What an amazing experience it must have been to have heard this beautiful hymn on the air waves for the very first time.  Just another miracle of Christmas. Let us pray that all radio transmissions give glory to God the way the very first one did!

O Holy Night is my hands-down favorite Christmas hymn and much to my children's chagrin I can listen to it over and over and over again (especially if Josh Groban is crooning it). This song is rich in meaning and has provided much to meditate on and pray about. Let's look at a few of it's most powerful lines.....

"Long lay the world in sin and error pining, till he appeared and the soul felt its worth." 

For many, Christmas can be a time of sorrow and loneliness - a time when the smiles and happiness of others can serve as a magnifying glass on one's own struggles.

The promise that Christ brings with his incarnation is to show us our own worth.  It is only in Christ, that we can truly understand our dignity and value as the sons and daughters of the most high. John 3:16 reminds us that "God so loved the world that he sent is only son so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life." St. Augustine, in his Confessions reveals this startling insight into God the Father's paternal love: "You are good and all-powerful, caring for each one of us as though the only one in your care." 

Think about that for a second...God cares for us as if we were the only one - no fighting for his attention, no bickering with our siblings because we want more "Daddy" time.  What a great and comforting thought that is! When faced with the evidence of such a loving and merciful Father, how can we not help but feel our worth.

If this is an area of challenge for you, I encourage you this Christmas to ask God the Father to reveal his great love for you in a new and deeper way - in this experience of his love, you will come to know your own soul's worth.

"A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn."

I'm tired. Most people I know are tired. The combination of watching the news and then going to the mall and joining the rat-race of stressed and exhausted shoppers trying to get their lists checked is overwhelming.  Most people's faces are indeed weary. Living in the world in 2016 is a daunting task. Life, I imagine, has always been this way.  No doubt the travelers at the time of Christ's birth were weary - weary of being oppressed by a foreign ruler, of having to participate in an intrusive census of having the values they cherished challenged. They like us, were uncertain of the future and anxious about their lives.

What promise this line from the song provides!  The hope that the incarnation of the Lord brings should give us a thrill!  In Jesus' birth, our weary world experiences the promise of salvation, redemption and the "freedom of the children of God" (Rom 8:21) This is not a theoretical, pie in the sky ideal.  Christ's incarnation really ushers in a new and glorious morn that is still available for us to grab hold of.  Weariness can be replaced by a deep and abiding joy in the possibilities that the Incarnation promises.

This Christmas, open your hearts to experience this "thrill of hope" in a new and powerful way.  Ask the Lord to reveal to you how his Incarnation has changed not only the world but you personally.  

"Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother and in his name all oppression shall cease." 

In Luke 4:18, Jesus takes up the scroll of Isaiah and proclaims: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free." The Lord Jesus is still in the business of breaking the chains that bind us - chains of sin, unforgiveness, bitterness and addiction. 

The Sacrament of Reconciliation offers us a personal encounter with the God of mercy - the same Jesus who was born 2016 in a manger works through the words of the priest to break the power of sin in our lives. The Lord loves us and desires us to be free from all forms of slavery.  If you are struggling with the chains in your life, I highly recommend Neal Lozano's book Unbound: A Practical Guide to Deliverance .

During this season of Christmas, spend some moments in silence asking the Lord to reveal any areas of oppression which exist in your life and the lives of those you love, and in confident and trusting prayer ask him to break those chains. 

What should our response to this amazing mystery of Christmas be?

The song itself provides the answer: 
"Sweet hymns of joy, in grateful chorus raise we, let all within us praise his holy name." 

Together let us raise our voices and our hearts to praise and thank the Lord this Christmas. 

Josh Groban's rendition of O Holy Night is one of my personal favorite versions of the song and here it is set to video accompanied by images from the movie The Nativity Story.

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Thursday, December 22, 2016

"He Will Bring Us Goodness and Light": Reflections on Do You Hear What I Hear?

It's Christmas quiz time:

The topic of conversation at your family Christmas dinner is (pick all that apply):
  1. How yummy the lasagna is.
  2. The number of batches of Christmas cookies Aunt Betty baked this year.
  3. Whether the Mets will trade Noah Syndegaard or not. 
  4. A heated discussion of how much the kids have grown. 
  5. The mystery of the Incarnation of Christ.
If you guessed that the conversation at my Christmas dinner is numbers 1-4 you aced this quiz. 

I come from a practicing Catholic family, yet any discussion of the "true meaning of Christmas" is conspicuously absent from our Christmas gatherings.

What's up with that?  

Granted, Christmas dinner is hardly the time for a presentation of a theological treatise on the hypostatic union.  Nor is anyone really interested in listening to Uncle Jimmy practice his preaching career, roaring fire and brimstone while Aunt Betty nods approvingly and continues to munch on  a butter cookie.

How then, can we place Jesus and the mystery of Christmas at the center of our Christmas gatherings? 

The simple 1962 Christmas song, Do You Hear What I Hear provides a great model.  In the song, the announcement of the first Christmas is passed along like a game of telephone.  Each character experiences the mystery of Christ's birth in a different way and gently shares what they have seen and heard with the next. Through this sharing the news eventually reaches the highest place in the land, and the King himself boldly proclaims that Christ will "bring us goodness and light."

So what does that have to do with Aunt Betty and her cookies? 

In the song, the characters share their experience in the first person - "Do you see what I see?" "Do you know what I know?" Often, the first step to a personal encounter with Jesus is hearing someone else tell their story of what the Lord has done for them. Personal, humble, honest witness is the single most effective evangelization strategy there is.

The song's simple litany illustrates this beautifully - one person shares with another and leads them to an experience and then they go on and share their experience.  None of the examples began with "You should..." or "Why don't you...."  Instead, they begin with a gentle, inviting question - one that encourages the listener to want to know more.

This Christmas, let us all ask the Infant Jesus for his goodness and light to empower us to ask our friends and family this life-changing question: "Do you know what I know?" 

Johnny Mathis' version of this carol is still my favorite: 

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Monday, December 19, 2016

"I Have No Gift to Bring": Reflections on The Little Drummer Boy

Pssst.  I have a secret.  

I AM the little drummer boy. Well, not exactly... I mean,  I'm a girl and I don't play the drums, and while I am, ahem, somewhat vertically challenged, overall I don't think I'm all that little.

Details, details, details.

The fact remains that I AM the little drummer boy.  I have approached the King of Kings more times than I can count, 100% convinced that I have no gift to bring that is fit to give him. My weaknesses, my failings, my poverty and my littleness seem completely unfit to present to His Majesty. Worse than that, the gold, frankincense and myrrh that others around me have to offer possess a WOW factor that I can't even hope to imitate.

My guess is that there are a lot of us drummer boys out there. 

We drummer boys spend all our energies lamenting what we don't have and wishing for the gifts that others have.  In keeping our vision focused on our weaknesses and others strengths, we stand before Jesus, stuck in our own heads, convinced that we have nothing of value to offer him. In our blindness, we fail to see that the King himself has already given us the only gift he ever desires from us.

Fortunately, the tune itself provides the answer to our unworthiness. In the carol, it is our Lady who gives the "nod" of encouragement to the Little Drummer Boy to give the only gift that he could - his own self and the song of his heart. He was the one and only person who could uniquely offer the gift of his song.  No one else could do that for him, and no other gift, no matter how grand or beautiful, could ever match his simple song, precisely because it was his and his alone to give.

Mary's maternal nod is available for all of us - through her intercession and her help, she gently nudges us towards her Son.

The teachings of the Saints also provide the little drummer boy inside us with some wise counsel.

St. Francis de Sales, in a letter of spiritual direction, warns his directee, a lay woman, about wishing for the spiritual gifts that others have saying:
Don’t sow your desires in someone else’s garden; just cultivate your own as best as you can; don’t long to be other than what you are, but desire to be thoroughly what you are.
St. Catherine of Siena in her characteristic bluntness says "Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire."

St. John Paul II in a powerful, packed passage writes:
The man who wishes to understand himself thoroughly - and not just in accordance with immediate, partial and often superficial, and even illusory standards and measures of being, he 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 into him with all his own self, he must "appropriate" and assimilate the whole of the reality of the Incarnation and Redemption in order to find himself.
Like the Little Drummer Boy, we too must approach the Lord and offer him a gift of our whole selves, with all our weaknesses and imperfections.  It is in this unique, irreplaceable, total gift of our life, presented to Jesus without reservation that we will experience the "smile" the Newborn King offers.

Josh Groban's version of The Little Drummer Boy is my favorite:

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Saturday, December 17, 2016

Gloria in Excelsis Deo: Spiritual Reflections on Christmas Carols

As a child, Christmas engaged all five of my senses.  The fresh Christmas tree engulfed our Brooklyn row-house living room each year with its unmistakable scent of pine. I loved the feel of the tinsel sticking to my arms as I raced past the tree on my way to the kitchen which was filled with tins of cookies that my Mom baked from scratch each December. I can still remember laying on our couch watching the lights twinkle on the tree, munching on butter cookies and listening to the sounds of Andy Williams and Johnny Mathias croon Christmas carols from my parents' Christmas album collection.

Those memories fill my heart today with the same mixture of emotions I felt as a young child - a sense of wonder and joy along with a deeper tug of longing.  When I was younger, I could not fully understand why the trappings of Christmas which so captivated my senses, left me feeling a little bit empty on the inside. I watched others around me approach the Christmas season with such excitement - happily buzzing about decorating, shopping, wrapping and unwrapping with evident cheer.  Even the carols we listened to sang of "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year".  For me, however, there was a wistfulness about Christmas - one that left me feeling vaguely unsettled and even a little sad in the midst of all the festivities.

Over the years I have come to conclude that my longing was real and not something fundamentally wrong with me. While my family was decidedly Catholic and I was taught that Jesus was the reason for the season, as a child I never quite saw the connection between the festive sense - pleasing celebrations of Christmas and the quiet, hidden reality of the Incarnation in all its humble glory. As an adult, I have come to a deeper awareness of that mystery and it is that mystery and that alone that fills my heart today at Christmas with an unspeakable joy, a sense of peace and a deep awe and wonder, over the Christmas season.

Don't misunderstand me.  I enjoy a delicious Christmas cookie chased down with a cup of eggnog as much as the next gal. The Italian feast of the seven fishes on Christmas Eve is still my favorite meal of the year. In fact, I appreciate those cultural and family traditions so much more now that they take their proper place in my heart and in my life. The true focal point of Christmas, the mystery of the Incarnation, now occupies the throne of the Christmas season and contemplating it washes away any sense of wistfulness or longing that tugged at my heart in years past.

Christmas carols have been a central part of the celebration of Christmas my entire life. It is in the lyrics to many of those carols that I have come to discover some powerful truths about the impact of the Nativity of the Lord on our own daily lives. This week, I'll be sharing my reflections on many well-known Christmas carols.  I hope you'll join me on that journey!

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Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Why do you pray to a statue?

Huh? Pray to a statue?  Well that sure does sound like a bizarre practice - doesn't it.  I can assure you I have never, ever prayed to a statue.  Having cleared that up, I can equally assure you that I count among my closest friends a Bishop from North Africa who lived in the 4th century, an 11 year old Italian peasant girl who was brutally martyred, and a globe-trotting, baby-kissing, truth-preaching Polish Pope. They are my "go-to" people for back-up prayers and spiritual advice. Ok, so these are not exactly people I met at the local homeschool group, but they are some of the best friends a girl could ask for.  And they most certainly are NOT statues. 

The Communion of Saints is one of the most mysterious aspects of what it means to be Catholic.  Even for cradle Catholics it is puzzling to think that people who lived hundreds of years ago and thousands of miles away can be some of our closest friends and greatest spiritual mentors. Misunderstandings of Catholics' devotion to the saints is a often a stumbling block to other Christians, and one of the most common questions asked of Catholics by Christians of other denominations.

As Catholics we profess our belief in the Communion of Saints every Sunday at Mass when we recite the Nicene Creed.  What does this belief entail? The Baltimore Catechism tells us that "by the Communion of Saints is meant the union of the faithful on earth, the blessed in heaven and the souls in purgatory with Christ as their head." (#170) We are not alone in our journey home to heaven. Instead we are united in Christ with those "saints" who have gone before us, whether they are in heaven or purgatory. And we ourselves are "saints', initiated into the Body of Christ at our Baptism and called to live out this reality in a deeper and deeper way throughout our lives.

Henri de Lubac, in his book, the Splendor of the Church highlights the significance of these other dimensions of the Church in the life of each Christian saying:
"It is vitally important that we should all become aware of these "dimensions" of the Church. For the more lively our sense of them, the greater will be the amplification of our own existence; and this is the way in which we shall realize fully in ourselves and for ourselves the title of "Catholic" which we bear as individuals."

Our relationship with the saints has nothing to do with praying to statues. Instead it has to do with acknowledging the reality that we are part of a much larger family than we can actually see. We ask the saints in heaven to pray for us at the throne of the Lord much in the same way we would ask our friend to say a prayer for us. We look to the example of their holy lives in order to help us grow in holiness.

As for the statues - they serve as reminders of these holy men and women, in the same way that a photograph of a loved one reminds us of their presence. My house is adorned with these holy images, which sit alongside the pictures of my beloved Grandparents who have passed into eternal life.  They stir up love in my heart for my heavenly friends, and a reminder that their true, spiritual presence is always with me.

Saint Augustine, Pray for us.
Saint Maria Goretti, Pray for us.
Saint John Paul II, Pray for us.

DeLubac, Henri, Splendor of the Church(San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006) 52-53

*Church militant in this world, Church Suffering in purgatory, and the Church Triumphant in heaven.

Read more related posts her:
The Moral Theology of St. Maria Goretti

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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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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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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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Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Moral Theology of St. Maria Goretti

 As a homeschooling Mom and a theology student, I am learning new theology lessons all the time. What is amazing to me is that it is through examining the lives of the saints that I have learned the most profound lessons in theology. In their witness we see the truths of God and the doctrines of the church come to life in vivid detail. When my children begin to view their catechism lessons as “boring”, all I need to do is pull out a video or story of a saint and immediately I have a rapt audience, eager to soak in all that the saints have to teach us. Pope Benedict XVI, in his book Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, describes the saints as "the true interpreters of Holy Scripture. The meaning of a given passage of the Bible becomes most intelligible in those human beings who have been totally transfixed by it and have lived it out."(p78)  

Each individual saint offers a unique lesson on the universal and unchanging truths of our faith. Their individuality provides a targeted and pointed look at specific virtues and areas of church teaching. St. Peter Claver’s life highlights the evils of slavery and the dignity of the human person. In the life of Blessed Mother Teresa we see a powerful witness to Jesus’ teaching on service to the poor. Through her diary, St. Faustina provides us with a beautiful account of the mercy of the Lord, particularly in how it is manifest in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

St. Maria Goretti, one of the youngest saints the church has ever canonized, is no exception. I count this young girl among my closest heavenly friends - she is my "go-to" intercessor and her short earthly life is an unending source of inspiration to me. While taking a Moral Theology course, I have also come to discover that this eleven year old, illiterate, Italian peasant girl - martyr is also an astute moral theologian. Let me explain:

Pope John Paul II in his encyclical on moral theology entitled Veritatis Splendor says:

"Martyrdom...bears splendid witness both to the holiness of God's law and to the inviolability of the personal dignity of man, created in God's image and likeness. This dignity may never be disparaged or called into question, even with good intentions, whatever the difficulties involved." (#92)

Young Maria Goretti understood these words deep within her soul. Her entire short life bore witness to her uncompromising love of all of God's laws. In the midst of the harshness of a life of poverty, heavy labor and struggle her joyful obedience to the great commandment of love of God and love of neighbor shone forth as a light to all those around her. She never gave into to bitterness or despair, despite a myriad of temptations to do so. Instead she served the Lord, her family and community faithfully. It was this lifetime of love of God and steadfast fidelity to his laws that set the stage for her martyrdom. 

When faced with the choice of submitting to Alessandro Serenelli's sexual advances or losing her life, Maria Goretti chose to continue to trust the wisdom and inviolability of God's law. She adamantly refused to give into his desires and pleaded with him to stop for the sake of his own soul. Maria did not give up her life out of a rigid, legalistic following of the moral law. Instead she gave up her life out of love: love for the Lord and his laws, love and understanding of her own dignity, and love for her attacker's soul. In the midst of the intense suffering she endured from the stab wounds she received, she continued to place obedience to God's law above all other impulses. She heroically forgave her attacker from her heart, and urged her mother to do the same.

In the moment of her attack and in the subsequent day of pain and suffering that she endured before her death, St. Maria Goretti exemplified the words of St. Paul:

"For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to what is seen but to what is unseen; for what is seen is transitory, but what is unseen is eternal. For we know that if our earthly dwelling, a tent, should be destroyed, we have a building from God, a dwelling not made with hands, eternal in heaven." (2Cor 4:17-18-2Cor 5: 1)

St. Maria Goretti's lived - out moral theology bore fruit long after her death and continues to do so today. Alessandro Serenelli, after seeing a vision of Maria while serving a prison sentence for her murder, repented of his sin, became a model prisoner and after his release from prison lived a life devoted to prayer in a Capuchin monastery. St. Maria Goretti is a witness to young people of the dignity of their purity and virginity in a world which dismisses any sort of sexual morality as meaningless and outdated. Finally, she is an advocate and friend to all who have been the victim of sexual abuse, speaking the truth of their inviolable dignity before God, a dignity which no abuse can change. In the trenches of a deeply difficult life and brutal death, through the grace of God, she achieved the heights of holiness.

St. Maria Goretti, pray for us. 

To learn more about this beautiful saint, I highly recommend the following resources:

Maria Goretti is a moving portrait of Maria's difficult, yet joyful life and depicts the heroic virtue and faith she displayed long before her martyrdom. The scenes which show her tragic final encounter with Alessandro Serenelli are tastefully done, without losing any of their gravity. I would highly recommend it as a teaching tool on purity for teenage boys and girls and the message of holiness amidst the struggles and hardships of life which the Goretti family faced makes it a compelling story for adults as well.

The book St. Maria Goretti: In Garments All Red provides a comprehensive overview of this young saint's short life, and includes the full texts of Pope Pius XII's addresses at her Beatification and Canonization.  The book also contains pictures and a novena to St. Maria Goretti. It is the book to read if you want to learn more about St. Maria Goretti.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Shelter From the Storm

The rain pounded the windshield of my car as I tugged on the wiper controls, hoping to make my already whizzing windshield wipers go faster. My hands gripped the wheel as tight as I could and I peered out the window hoping to steer my car and my children to a safe spot to wait out the storm.

We had left a friend's house only a short while before, noting the dark clouds in the sky, but not expecting that Mother Nature would unleash such a severe thunderstorm within a few short minutes. I finally settled the car into a parking spot when the wind picked up dramatically, hail started to pound the roof and the branches of the tree above us began to violently thrash about.

"Let's go to St. John's..." whispered my daughter from the backseat.  St. John's was the parish which housed our homeschool co-op.  I knew it was only about a mile away, but I secretly doubted that its doors would be open in the middle of a random Wednesday afternoon.  Still, I knew we weren't safe where we were and her suggestion seemed to be worth a shot.

"Pray to St. Michael", I instructed the children as we slowly made our way down the road and into the church's vacant parking lot.  I pulled up in front of the church and my son dashed out to try the doors. He pulled on the first door - it was locked. "Please Lord", I silently prayed, "let us find shelter in your house..." The second door swung open.  I shooed my daughter out of the car and told them to wait for me inside while I parked.  She started sobbing. "Mommy, I'm afraid..." "No worries" was my trying-to-sound casual reply - "you are safe in Jesus' house."

The 10 second sprint from the parking lot into the church left me soaked from head to toe.  The children and I entered the dark, silent church, breathing deeply the familiar smell of faded incense, and made our way to the front pew.  We sat in silence in front of the tabernacle, the red light assuring us of the real presence of the Lord.  My daughter stopped crying and my son suggested we pray a rosary.

As we sat praying, the pounding rain slowly began to cease.  The pause in what had been an outrageously busy few weeks gave me a chance to reflect. 

  • How great is God our Father who provides shelter in all the storms of our life!  
  • How humble is our Lord Jesus, who waits patiently for us and welcomes us with love and unfathomable peace whenever we run to him, no matter how long it has been.
  • How wise is the Holy Spirit, who whispers words of wisdom into the hearts of our children, and makes our own "wiser" hearts docile enough to hear them.
  • How wonderful are the Lord's faithful servants who permit our churches to be unlocked, when the more "practical" minded would urge them shut them tight and open them only when necessary.
  • Finally, how powerful are the lessons of the Lord, which come in the most unexpected ways.  My children and I learned more about God's faithfulness and the shelter his Church provides in this short experience than through all the "religion lessons" of our school year. 

We left the church only 40 minutes later, and drove home in a light drizzle.  Within a few minutes of arriving at home, the sun began to shine brightly.  For those who love the Lord, there is always grace during the struggle, a rainbow following the storm, and resurrection after death.

To God be the glory!

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

7 Lessons From the Visitation

The church celebrates the Feast of the Visitation on May 31, bringing to a conclusion the month devoted to our Blessed Mother. The account of Mary's Visitation to Elizabeth from Luke's Gospel (Luke 1:39-56) is reflected upon by Catholics in  the second Joyful Mystery of the Rosary, and I number it as one of my favorite scriptural accounts. Here are seven lessons the actions of Mary and Elizabeth in the Visitation have taught me.

Put a little pep in your step. 
Luke's account of the Visitation opens with the following line: "During those days Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste..." (Luke 1:39). The phrase that always jumps off the page at me is "in haste". Mary went in haste to be of service to her cousin, Elizabeth, whom she had just found out was pregnant in her old age.

Let's consider a few things here: First, Mary is pregnant. Second, she didn't jump in her SUV, stop at Dunkin Donuts for an Iced Coffee on the way and arrive a few hours later. More than likely she walked....over the hills....for hours, if not days. Third, Mary is pregnant. Ooops, I said that already....might be because I never did anything in haste when I was pregnant. In actuality, I don't do much in haste when I am not pregnant.

What is the lesson here? Mary was ready and willing to quickly provide service someone in need. She hopped right to it. She didn't agonize over it, check her calendar, weigh the pros and cons, or pause to consider what might be in it for her - she went in haste to help. It's a lesson that I, for one, am not learning in haste. Each time I hear this scripture I am more and more convicted that my attitude towards helping others needs to be far more like Mary's and for that to happen, I need to ask the Lord to fill me with the Holy Spirit, just like Mary was.

Service requires sacrifice.
We live in an instant-gratification culture. Watching the microwave tick down the last 30 seconds of cooking the four minute frozen dinner, often leaves me impatiently tapping my fingers on the counter. Yet, most things in life don't happen in an instant -and people's real needs are rarely met in the span of a 20 minute sitcom. 

St. Luke tells us that Mary's visit to Elizabeth lasted for three months. (Luke 1:56) Mary was willing to make the sacrifice necessary to help meet Elizabeth's needs. True Christian service requires a heart open to sacrifice and an attitude of putting other's needs before our own.

Becoming a Mom for the first time drove home this lesson with me. The nine months of of pregnancy required a self-sacrificing patience like few other experiences in my life before or since (with the possible exception of potty-training). No matter how much I desired to rush the process, the child in my womb required my constant, day-in, day-out sacrifice in ways that I had never though possible. Like Elizabeth, my pregnancy also found me needing  the service of others to assist me in performing the tasks that my growing belly left me unable to do on my own. This experience of both giving and receiving long-term sacrificial service led me to see the blessings of a life lived for others, a life like Mary's.

The Holy Spirit helps us recognize Jesus.
The scriptures tell us: "When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? (Luke 1:41-43)

Because Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, she was able to recognize the presence of Jesus in the womb of Mary and proclaim those beautiful words that we recite in every Hail Mary. St. Paul tells us "No one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the holy Spirit." (1 Cor 12:3) It is the Holy Spirit who enables us to recognize the Lord Jesus, even when he is hidden from our senses, as he was from Elizabeth. We must daily ask the Holy Spirit to fill us, as he filled her, so that we too are able to recognize Jesus in others whom we meet. 
There is joy in encountering the Lord.
It is an unmistakable feeling when your unborn child makes a sudden move in your womb. For me, it was just a delight to feel my babies flip, dance and kick inside of me. I wondered what caused these movements - what were they thinking or sensing from me inside the darkness of the womb. Luke tells us that John the Baptist "leaped for joy" in Elizabeth's womb at the sound of Mary's voice (Luke 1:44).

Pope John Paul II calls the mystery of the Visitation a "mystery of joy". He says:
"But what is the mysterious, concealed source of such joy? It is Jesus. Mary had already conceived Him through the work of the Holy Spirit and He is now beginning to defeat what is at the root of fear, of anxiety, of sadness - sin, the most humiliating slavery for man." 
Let us pray with expectant faith that in all of our encounters with the Lord Jesus, whether in prayer, in the sacraments or in the love of another, we many feel the joy that the unborn John the Baptist felt!

Trust in the Lord bears fruit.
Elizabeth honors Mary's trust in God with the following words: "Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” (Luke 1:45) Mary bore Jesus, the fruit of her womb, because she radically trusted God. We, too, are called to bear fruit for the Kingdom of God in our lives - fruit which can only be borne if we live out Mary-like trust.

Proverbs 3:5 challenges us to "Trust in the Lord with all of your heart; on your own intelligence do not rely." Like Mary, we may not know all the details of the mission the Lord is asking us to do. We may wonder what the future will hold for us if we follow God's ways and surrender fully to his will in our lives. It is in moments of questioning, or fighting off the temptation to "rely on our own intelligence" that we should call upon our Blessed Mother for her intercession, so that we too can "bear fruit that will last." (John 15:16)

The glory belongs to the Lord.
How does Mary respond to Elizabeth's unconventional greeting? In humility, she directs all the glory to God. In opening lines of the Magnificat, one of the most beautiful songs of praise and glory to God, she declares:

"My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my savior.
For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness;
behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.
The Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name. (Luke 1:46-49)

Perhaps the greatest lesson of the mystery of the Visitation is that the glory for all the blessings and good things in our lives belongs rightfully to the Lord. It is a good practice, and one that I am slowly incorporating into my daily prayer life, to have a "gratitude journal"- a notebook to log the many blessings the Lord showers upon us every day. Taking time to "proclaim the greatness of the Lord" shifts our focus off ourselves and off the less joyful moments of the day, and places our attention on the Lord and all the great things he has done for us. It is a way to live out the mystery of the Visitation each day. 

The Visitation is ongoing.
Like all the mysteries of the Rosary (indeed the whole of scriptures) there is an ongoing aspect to our meditations. We are not simply reflecting on an event of the past, but rather entering into a living Word. Through our meditations, we pray for the grace to grow in imitation of what we are reading; to more and more fully incorporate the mystery into our daily lives. This is an on-going process, and one that will take our entire lives to unfold. 

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