Monday, July 25, 2016

Pope Francis' Recipe for Holiness: Ingredient 3: Fortitude

In last week's edition of "Recipe for Holiness", my partner in this series, blogger Allison Gingras, spoke of her own use of spiritual weapons to combat anxiety.   I too am a worrier, coming from a long line of worriers.  In fact, for a large part of my life, I considered my anxiety to be part of my identity, something I could not change, much like my blue eyes.  Fear and worry were as natural to me a breathing and I had long resigned myself to the fact that this was my genetic lot in life. 

After experiencing a major life-changing encounter with the Lord Jesus, my outlook began to shift.  I saw and heard people around me talking about healing, spiritual growth, and holiness.  The burden of my own anxieties began to weigh more and more heavily on my shoulders.  Having children had ratcheted up the anxiety meter considerably.  The stakes were high, my worry was commensurately higher and I was miserable.  This was not the "glorious freedom of the children of God" which St. Paul talked about and I so desperately wanted. (Rom 8:21)

I was a slave to my own fears. 

One of my Spiritual Director's most frequent counsels when I am battling struggles, challenges, or obstacles is to encourage me not to pray for those to be removed but instead to ask for more of the Holy Spirit in my life and all the gifts that he brings with his holy and powerful presence.

In this counsel, he echoes the words of Pope Francis. In a General Audience on May 14, 2014, The Holy Father said these words: 

"With the gift of fortitude the Holy Spirit frees the soil of our heart from torpor, uncertainties and all the fears that can stop it, so that the Word of God can be put into practice, in an authentic and joyful way."

Without the Holy Spirit and his gifts, we cannot live the Christian life fully.  I know this from experience. The fears in my life had all but paralyzed me and I was unable to move forward.  Again, Pope Francis speaks of the crippling power of fear: "A person who is afraid does nothing, doesn’t know what to do. He is focused on himself, so that nothing bad will happen." 

Story of my life.

The consequence of this was that my joy was hampered greatly by the anxiety that I was suffering from. As Pope Francis and many saints before him have pointed out, "a Christian without joy is not a Christian."

What to do?  The Holy Father provides the remedy: "Do not be afraid, and ask for the grace of courage, the courage of the Holy Spirit that He sends us."

I needed to beg the Holy Spirit to stir up the gift of Fortitude, and all of his 7 gifts which I had received at my Baptism, but which were lying unopened and covered with such a layer of dust that I hardly knew they were there.  I slowly began to open these beautiful gifts and discover in the Scriptures, the Sacraments and through the witness of other brothers and sisters in Christ that God had a plan for my life.  The result of  my use of the Gift of Fortitude and the other gifts of the Holy Spirit was a deep surrender of my heart to the Lord and a plea for him to reveal the roots of my anxiety to me and heal them! 

Over time, and after much prayer, the Lord did indeed heal me of my anxiety.  To HIM be the Glory!  More than that however, he revealed that my truest identity lies not in my "genetic lot in life" but instead in Him! 

If you are feeling crushed under the weight of your fears, I urge you to find yourself a quiet place of prayer, and soak in the knowledge that a life of fear and anxiety is NOT the life the God has planned for you - he has so much more for you and he has given all of us the Advocate, the Comforter, the Counselor, the Holy Spirit who desires to fill our hearts with the gifts we need to live out "the glorious freedom of the children of God."

Visit Allison at Reconciled to You for more #Recipe4Holiness!

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Monday, July 18, 2016

Pope Francis' Recipe for Holiness: Ingredient 2: Courage

Courage. This is probably the last ingredient I would put into a recipe for holiness.  My initial thought is - well, of course the martyrs need courage, and those living in parts of the world where Christians suffer horrible persecutions.  But courage for me? In growing in holiness? Here in my suburban world of stay at home momness?

Fortunately, Pope Francis differs in his assessment of the necessity for courage in the spiritual life.  The Holy Father counts it as an essential ingredient - in fact, he calls for it to be added first, saying:

"First: courage. The path to holiness takes courage. Jesus’ Kingdom of Heaven is for those who have the courage to go forward."

In an address to the youth preparing to attend World Youth Day in 2015, Pope Francis challenged them to "Have the courage to be happy?"

Gosh - the courage to be holy, the courage to be happy.  What is the Holy Father talking about? 

The Pope went on to explain: “Dear young men and women, in Christ you find fulfilled your every desire for goodness and happiness, He alone can satisfy your deepest longings, which are so often clouded by deceptive worldly promises.”

In the Pope's words, we find echoes of Jesus' exhortation in Matthew 7:13-14: "Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few."

Holiness, and the true and lasting happiness that is its companion, makes difficult demands on us - demands which are often counter-cultural.  It takes courage to take up the demands of the Gospel and choose the narrow path.  In examining my initial reaction to this ingredient, I have come to appreciate that there is a certain strength and courage necessary to live out even the simplest demands of a life in Christ: and that the gift of courage is one that comes from the Lord himself. 

Today I ask the Lord for the courage to take the following small steps towards holiness:
  • to rise early to meet the Lord in prayer each day.
  • to listen to others with an open heart, without judgement or condemnation, and without becoming defensive, even when they are pointing out shortcomings in me.
  • to forgive myself for my own failures
  • to be prudent and temperate in my decisions, without becoming a rigid, self-righteous boor.
  • to remain hopeful and peaceful in the midst of the barrage of bad news which seems to flood my senses.
  • to look beyond the struggles of this life, to see eternity as my true goal and home.
What about you? Ask the Lord in prayer to reveal the areas in your life where you need courage to move forward towards him, confident that he will hear your prayer and provide all that you need.

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Monday, July 11, 2016

Pope Francis' Recipe For Holiness: Ingredient 1 - Grace

My confession proceeded as usual. I did this...I didn't do that...I could have done this...I regret doing that...I failed...I sinned....and I am tired.  The last one was tough to admit. I am proud of the fact that I can keep the multiple plates of my life spinning.  I enjoy the activity and relish the sense of accomplishment I have at the end of the day. Most days, the hustle and bustle energizes me, but this time was different.  I had just come though a long month which included running a major Women's Conference, the frenetic pace of the Christmas holidays, two sick kids, and a bout with walking pneumonia that quite literally knocked the wind out of me.

I was tired and in all honesty, had very little sense of resolve that I could move the needle forward in the holiness department. So much for the "firm purpose of amendment" that the Sacrament of Reconciliation calls for.

I finished my confession, sat back and looked at my confessor - waiting for some words of wisdom, or at least a little pity.

Instead, he offered the following observation: "Do you know what I hear? I hear a whole lot of "I"...." He went on to point out, with the utmost gentleness, but quite rightly, that I had been trying to do everything on my own steam and I had run out of gas.  Instead, he suggested that I begin each day, even each new activity, by meeting the Lord in restful prayer and asking for his grace to provide the power for the day. 

My confessor was right. My pride and self-sufficiency had gotten the best of me, and in my desire to check off the "to-do" list each day, I forget to add the first, most essential ingredient of Pope Francis' Recipe for Holiness: Grace.

In a morning homily on May 24, 2016, the Holy Father challenged the his listeners with these words:  "We cannot achieve holiness on our own. No, it is a grace. Being good, being saintly, going every day a little - a step forward in the Christian life is a grace of God and we have to ask for it.

It was not the first time Pope Francis has talked about grace.  In 2014, on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, he reiterated the famous words of St. Therese of Lisieux :"everything is a free gift from God, everything is grace, everything is a gift out of his love for us." 

What is grace?  The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that "Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life." (CCC 1196) We receive sanctifying grace, which allows us to participate in God's own life, at our Baptism. As long as we remain free from mortal sin, we live in this state of grace - an intimate communion with the Holy Trinity.  The Lord, in his generosity, also provides us with what the Church refers to as "actual grace", which Catholic Encyclopedia defines as grace that "is granted by God for the performance of salutary acts and is present and disappears with the action itself." This is the grace which moves us in a particular instance to perform an act of virtue or holiness.

We have access to this grace, now what? Pope Francis' highlights our Blessed Mother as the model for how we should respond and cooperate with God's grace.  He says: "the attitude of Mary of Nazareth shows us that being comes before doing, and to leave the doing to God in order to be truly as he wants us. It is He who works so many marvels in us. Mary is receptive, but not passive."

This was exactly my confessor's point.  I was so focused on performing the actions of my life, that I neglected to be receptive to God's grace and the help that He so desired to provide me. Our performance - based, action-oriented culture does not aid matters much. As Catholic's striving for the heights of holiness in the trenches of everyday life, we need to give ourselves permission to just "be" in the presence of the Lord and be open to whatever he wants to work in us and through us.

The results of this grace and our cooperation with it are amazing. The Pope tells us: "If our life is allowed to be transformed by the grace of the Lord, for the grace of the Lord does transform us, we will not be able to keep to ourselves the light that comes from his face, but we will let it pass on to enlighten others."

We see lives transformed by grace most clearly in the witness of the Saints. Their holiness is compelling - it draws us to them.  We want what they have. The good news is that what they have is not reserved for just a select few, but available to each and everyone of us, we have only to ask and be receptive to all that God desires to give us.

Almighty Father, giver of all good gifts, we humbly come before you and surrender our lives to you. We repent of the times we have tried to live life on our own terms and using our own steam. We turn to you today and ask you to fill us with your grace, so that every aspect of our lives may be lived according to your will and that we may be a witness to your great love to all we meet.

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.