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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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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Thursday, August 25, 2016

Recipe for Holiness: Ingredient 7: Small Acts

An avalanche of kindness.  That is how I would describe this week.

It began with my sister in law offering to hang out with my kids for breakfast so I could take a final exam, online, in peace and quiet. The following morning my son greeted my husband and I with a fully wrapped (bow included) pre-anniversary present - a Magic Mesh Magnetic Screen Door.  Ours ripped a few weeks ago and he knew we would need to replace it before hosting a houseful of people this weekend.  Secretly, he arranged for my Dad to take him shopping so he could purchase it with his own money. A few hours later, a friend surprised me with a gift of a cute summer skirt in the colors of a new business that I have just jumped into. The evening ended with me dozing off on the couch while watching the Mets game only to feel my little one cover me with a blanket and kiss me on the cheek.

An avalanche indeed, consisting of the smallest acts of love and kindness.

We continue the Recipe for Holiness series this week with Pope Francis' next ingredient: small acts.  There is a temptation in all things to believe that it is only the spectacular, the heroic, or the super-abundant acts that make the difference.  We watch in awe as Olympic athletes break records to win gold medals.  The news reports recount tales of extreme heroism on the part of law enforcement. Even the church extols the sacrifices of the martyrs and the intense holiness of the saints.

Don't misunderstand me.  It is right to acknowledge and admire these acts of heroism.  I would like to propose that behind every act of heroism is a multitude of small acts done faithfully each day. The Olympic athlete does not win the gold without steadily persevering through conditioning exercises, mundane practices and bits of routines done over and over again. The vast majority of law enforcement's acts of protection and service go unnoticed by the general public. Finally, the saints themselves achieved their exalted place in the church through a lifetime of virtuous living and unwavering prayer. 

What's the lesson for us? 

The avalanche of kindness that I experienced this week was comprised of a few small acts of love. Like a true avalanche, these acts built upon each other to create a snowball effect of something much greater than they each were individually. Father Lawrence Lovasik, in his wonderful book The Hidden Power of Kindness, tells us:
"No kind action ever stops with itself. One kind action leads to another. Good example is followed. A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees."
Our little actions, when powered by love, make a difference in our own lives and in the lives of those around us.  Today, let us strive for the heights of holiness in the trenches of everyday life one small act of love at time.

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Visit Allison at Reconciled to You for more #Recipe4Holiness!

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Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Recipe for Holiness: Ingredient 6: Mercy

Mercy - this ingredient in our Recipe for Holiness is the one most likely to bring up images of Pope Francis.  He is the "face of mercy" for some many people.  Mercy is an essential element of Christian life.  We are all in need of it and we are all called by the Lord himself to be doers and givers of it.

In establishing the Jubliee Year of Mercy, the Holy Father has highlighted Mercy as a key ingredient in a life of holiness.  Here are five of my favorite Pope Francis quotes on mercy:

1. "Mercy is a journey that departs from the heart to arrive at the hands." Address, August 10, 2016

2. "Let us ask the Lord, each of us, for eyes that know how to see beyond appearances, ears that know how to listen to cries, whispers, and also silence; hands able to support, embrace, and minister. Most of all, let us ask for a great and merciful heart that desires the good and salvation of all." Address, May 3, 2014

3. "Christians are called to give witness to God's love and mercy. We must never cease to do good, even when it is difficult and demanding." Address, January 13, 2014

4. "The call of Jesus pushes each of us never to stop at the surface of things, especially when we are dealing with a person. We are called to look beyond, to focus on the heart to see how much generosity everyone is capable. No one can be excluded from the mercy of God; everyone knows the way to access it and the Church is the house that welcomes all and refuses no one. Its doors remain wide open, so that those who are touched by grace can find the certainty of forgiveness. The greater the sin, so much the greater must be the love that the Church expresses toward those who convert." Homily, March 13, 2015

5."Dear brothers and sisters, let us be enveloped by the mercy of God; let us trust in his patience, which always gives us more time. Let us find the courage to return to his house, to dwell in his loving wounds, allowing ourselves be loved by him and to encounter his mercy in the sacraments. We will feel his wonderful tenderness, we will feel his embrace, and we too will become more capable of mercy, patience, forgiveness and love." Homily, Divine Mercy Sunday, 2013

And finally, one of my favorite videos of Pope Francis encouraging all of us to get to the Sacrament of Mercy - Confession!

Visit Allison at Reconciled to You for more #Recipe4Holiness!

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