A Seed Planted

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I see her standing there almost every week. She’s alone except for her little brown dog, on the same corner each time, across the street from the hospital. When I turn next to where she stands, she looks at me. Not with a glance, but with a solid, almost searching look, like she really sees me and not just another driver in what must be hundreds of cars that pass her by. At first, that eye contact was a little creepy. I thought, surely she can’t look so hard at every driver—so why me? But now, after many months of seeing here there, alone and persistent, I seek out her eyes as I drive past. We look at one another. I slow down, I smile. She smiles. And then I’m past her, until the next week.

This woman on that corner of that busy sidewalk, across from the hospital, has a ministry. Her part of the Lord’s vineyard is in the full hot sun of summer and the cold, biting winds of winter. He’s called her to be a silent witness to the horrors of abortion, and she’s faithfully answered that call. She holds a simple, homemade sign that reads, “Abortion is Murder: Repent.” And each day that she stands there, she reminds people of the reality of what abortion really is. Not a choice, but a murder of an innocent life. I don’t know her name, but I know what she’s done for me.

She’s convicted me. I can say that I’m “pro-life” but seeing her standing there, week after week, month after month, in all kinds of weather, makes me know—deep in my heart—that I need to do more. When I first saw here there on the corner, that’s what was creepy. It was as if when she looked at me, she could see that I wasn’t doing enough. Her ministry, her witness, is bearing fruit in my heart. And that’s a good thing.

So what does “doing more” really mean? I can refuse to be silent when those around me discuss abortion “rights.” I can be a greater voice in defense of unborn children. Speaking up can be uncomfortable if this means being at odds with your family and friends. But I have to do this. Doing more means actively opposing euthanasia and embryonic stem cell research, too. I can’t be pro-life and at the same time, support actions that cause innocent deaths. Doing more means supporting elected officials who protect and defend human life. I know many Catholics for whom this is not a deciding factor when they go to the polls to vote. For this Catholic, it certainly IS a deciding factor.

Doing more means using social media to support and defend the dignity of human life. What I post on Facebook and tweet on Twitter reflects what’s important to me and mirrors my faith and my belief about the gift of life. What I write here does the same thing. What could be more important than standing up for the defenseless? Maybe I’ll get unfriended by some on Facebook or unfollowed by folks on Twitter—it’s a very small price to pay.

Doing more means praying more and giving more financial support to those agencies and ministries who provide prenatal and delivery care to moms who need it. I can reach out to women and men who have suffered abortion and make them welcome in my parish. I can participate in pro-life work in my diocese including the “Forty Days for Life” events and rosary prayer chains. Doing more, in the end, means being less concerned about what others think and being more committed to the truth of my Church and my Savior. I can be a greater voice for the unborn child and for those whose voices are weak and hard to hear due to age or frailty, imprisonment or fear. The lady on the corner with her homemade sign is doing her part in building the Kingdom of God. Is God calling me to stand with her? I don’t know yet. Maybe. Maybe not. But she’s done her part by planting that seed. I trust in the Holy Spirit to help it grow in me and I pray for the courage to do HIs will.

“Evil is powerless if the good are unafraid.”
—–Ronald Reagan

Catholics and The Bible

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“Catholics don’t believe in the Bible.” This is something I’ve heard many times from Protestants. It’s true that we don’t carry our Bibles with us when we go to Mass. That’s because the Bible is already there waiting for us. Scripture is proclaimed aloud to us at each Mass. We hear an Old Testament reading, a Psalm, a selection from the New Testament letters and a Gospel passage. So though we don’t carry our Bibles into the Church, we hear it read at every Mass. And we listen to the beauty of Holy Scripture as it is read. “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ”(Romans 10:17). In our 3-year cycle of readings, we hear a large percentage of the Bible at Mass, not counting our parish Scripture Studies and the reading we do at home.

At each Mass, the Liturgy of the Word is very important. We gather together as a family of God and then we hear the Word of God. After the Gospel reading, the pastor or deacon preaches to us. Most of the time he preaches on the theme of that day’s Scripture readings. Unlike most Protestant preaching though, the sermon we hear isn’t the focus of our worship. The Holy Eucharist, the very real and literal presence of Jesus Christ, is the source and summit of our faith and is the reason we come together for the Mass.

Where does the Eucharist come from? The Bible (Matthew 26; Mark 14; Luke 22; and John 13). Since the earliest days of Christianity, believers gathered to worship and listen to the Gospel stories before sharing in the Eucharist. The Mass existed for more than 400 years before the Bible did. At the Council of Hippo in 397 AD, the books of the Bible as we know it were fairly well-set. This Council, like the Church Councils before it and after it, were made up of the Pope and the Bishops of the Catholic Church. We reverence the Bible as God’s holy word and we look to His word for our teachings on the Pope, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Saints, the Mass and the Sacraments including Baptism, Confession, and the Eucharist.

But one thing we don’t share with our Protestant brothers and sisters is a belief that the Bible alone is the source of our knowledge of God and of HIs plan for our lives. For one thing, nowhere in the Bible does it say that Scripture alone is the foundation of our faith. Remember that our faith was born many centuries before the Bible existed. Christ did not leave us Scripture, and never commanded anything to be written down. Rather, He left us a Church (Matthew 16:18). St. Paul writes that the Church is “the pillar and foundation of the truth (I Timothy 3:15). He couldn’t have said that the Bible is that pillar and foundation—because when he wrote his letter to Timothy, the New Testament didn’t exist. Moreover, St. Paul knew the Truth: that the Church is the treasury of all of Christianity and from it, was born the Bible. God’s unfolding plan for our salvation through Jesus Christ was that His Church be the instrument through which His word would be revealed to us. Catholics look to the teaching authority of this Church regarding the interpretation and understanding of the Bible. Our Old Testament also differs from the OT used by Protestant churches. Ours has seven books not included in the King James Version of the bible. This is because the Catholic Church adopted the Greek version of the OT used by most Jews at the time of Christ. Martin Luther wanted to remove any evidence of purgatory taught in the OT, so he deleted those same seven books in the Bibles using during the development of protestantism, including the King James Version.

So yes, Catholics uphold the Bible as the sacred revealed word of God to His people. We love it because it tells the story of His great love for us and His plan for our salvation through His son, Jesus Christ. We reverence sacred scripture in each Mass and we stand in respect whenever the Gospel is proclaimed. Scripture informs our worship, inspires our hymns, and illuminates our prayers. Going to Mass is taking a beautiful journey through the Bible. We share the Eucharist, given to us by Jesus at the Last Supper when He said, “This is My Body…this is My Blood” (Matthew 26). When our Savior tells us something in Scripture, we believe Him. The Bible tells us Who the Eucharist is—not a symbol, not a remembrance—but a Person, Jesus the Christ. Our faith is founded on His Sacred Word.

And the Word was made flesh, and made His dwelling among us….”
—John 1:14

I Want A Requiem Mass

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The late Joan Rivers had written in one of her books that she wanted a splashy “Hollywood” funeral when she died. Although it seems that her actual services may have been much more low-key, lots of celebrities were in attendance for them. I hope that pleased her. Like Joan, I have some pretty firm ideas of the kind of funeral I’d like to have and it’s very far from her Hollywood vision. I hope my family is reading this.

I want a Requiem Mass. This is the traditional Catholic Mass for the dead. It’s not a “celebration of life” service into which many funerals (sadly, even Catholic ones) have devolved. In a Requiem Mass, I am not eulogized or praised—I am prayed for. The focus is not on warm, fuzzy memories of days gone by, but on storming the gates of heaven with prayers for my immortal soul. There are no video montages, no funny stories, no heartwarming remembrances. This is a Mass for a sinner in need of the mercy of God. That would be me.

Yes, I do hope and pray to die in a state of grace, close to God in every way. For me as a Catholic, this means clinging to Jesus in the Sacraments of His Church, especially Holy Communion and frequent sacramental Confession. I pray that, before my death, I’m able to receive the Anointing of the Sick, which we sometimes call “the last rites.” In this Sacrament, the priest will anoint me with blessed oils and will pray for my soul and my body. He will hear my last confession and give me absolution of my sins. He will share with me the Body and Blood of my Savior in the Holy Eucharist. He will encourage me to go with faith to the house of my Father (Luke 15:18) like the prodigal child that I am. And, please God, He will welcome me into His presence.

A Requiem Mass is my Church’s liturgy for a baptized Catholic following their death. My body, anointed in the last rites will be in my casket which will be placed near the altar of my parish church. This liturgy is, first and foremost, a Mass. It is NOT a time to praise me. It is the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. The prayers of this Mass will be offered for the benefit of my soul. The Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) will be sung, which is a beautiful prayer pleading for God’s mercy and forgiveness of my sins. It should be in every funeral Mass. Sadly, many Catholics have lost the sense of praying for the souls of the departed. We prefer to think of everyone heading straight to heaven. But we must not do this, if we love them. We must pray. Other prayers in the Mass will ask that God limit my punishment in purgatory.

Catholics believe that when we sin we can be forgiven by God in the sacrament of confession, but even then we will continue to be wounded by the effects of our sins. Think of sin as a nail driven into a piece of wood. Confession and absolution remove the sin (the nail) but the hole it leaves is still there. That hole is healed by our suffering, either in this life or in purgatory. That’s why we continue to pray for our loved ones after they’ve died. And that’s a wonderful reason for a Requiem Mass. I need those prayers, for sure.

A Catholic funeral is for the soul of the deceased person. We don’t automatically believe that the person who has died is already in heaven. Our prayers for them are for that end. Our hymns at the funeral are for that end. I I pray that my Requiem Mass will pull no punches in begging our generous and loving Lord to forgive me and heal me and welcome me home. If you want to tell funny stories about me and reminisce about the good times and eulogize me into the wee hours, please do—at my wake, but not at my funeral. As a matter of fact, what I truly want upon my death is a Requiem Mass in Latin with a schola, but I’ll save all that for another day. Just remember this: I need your prayers now AND when I die. I need (and desire) the beautiful Requiem Mass of my holy Catholic faith. Heaven is my goal, not Hollywood. Sorry, Joan.

“May the Angels lead you into paradise, may the Martyrs come to welcome you….”
—-from the Requiem Mass

Islam Loves Our Lady

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You might not know it from all the non-coverage the major networks are giving us, but there’s a Christian holocaust going on today in Iraq and Syria. Christians are being persecuted in other ares of the world too, but not on the scale and severity that ISIS is perpetrating. Men and women and babies are being crucified, beheaded and set on fire, often while family members are forced to watch. Radical Muslim terrorists want to purge their cities of all Christians. Most of these are Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Christians, among others. Thousands have died, including two American journalists whose beheadings finally managed to bring some media focus to the violence there, at least for a few days. Make no mistake, this is a genocide of Christians.

Our president has told us that he has no strategy to deal with ISIS and their threats. Others, like Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) have a very definite idea of how to handle them: “We ought to bomb them back to the Stone Age.” We can disagree on what we should do, but we must do SOMETHING. We can’t sit quietly by as our brothers and sisters in Christ are driven from their homes and killed for one reason—their faith in Jesus. Doing nothing is not an option. By doing nothing we are saying to the terrorists: “I see what you are doing and I can’t be bothered. Your victims are not my family or my friends and their lives have no value to me.”

But they are our family. Their baptism binds us with them in the love of Christ. Believe this also, that the terrorists who are killing them would kill you or me for the same reason if they could get to us. Yet, for the most part, our country’s leaders have tolerated more and more of these murders, including Americans. Pope Francis recently urged that the violence against Christians must be stopped when he said, “In these cases where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say that it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor”(August 19, 2014). Cardinal Donald Wuerl echoed the Pope’s concerns at a recent Mass which celebrated the opening of the academic year at the Catholic University of America. He said, “Atrocities happen for two reasons. There are people prepared to commit them and there are those who remain silent.” He calls us out of our inaction, saying that “we are not free to ignore” this genocide.

What does this mean for us as Christians in America? To begin with, let’s look at history. Christians have faced the threat of radical Islam before. In 1571, Europe faced invasion by the Ottoman Empire. A naval battle ensued, won by a coalition of Catholic maritime states at Lepanto. The victors credited their good fortune to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, to whom they had prayed before the battle began. She was their secret weapon. If not for their victory, the entire history of Europe would have unfolded much differently. Mary has a deep connection to Islam. She is mentioned by name in the Koran more than she is in the New Testament. In fact, she’s the only woman mentioned by name in the whole Koran. Muslims revere her. Mohammad’s daughter was named Fatima. Catholics recognize Fatima as the town in Portugal where the Virgin Mary appeared to three children in 1917. God chose Fatima for a reason. The events there centered on Mary’s urging us all to pray the Rosary for peace and for the conversion of the world to Christianity.

So that’s the strategy I’m proposing, even if our president doesn’t have one yet. For the sake of our Christian family in the Middle East, we ask for the Blessed Virgin Mary to intercede. Mary always points to her Son. As His mother, she brought Jesus to our broken and hurting world. In a way, she was the bridge between heaven’s love and our desperate need for God’s salvation. At Fatima, she proclaimed His unending desire that every soul be brought to Him and that our own faithfulness and prayers can help. No one, not even the most hardened of hearts, is beyond the love and mercy of God. So while our political leaders search for a strategy to stop the violence, we can invoke the intercession of Our Lady of Fatima: surely a name and a title that has meaning for the people of Islam. We pray for the peace of God to end the bloodshed which plagues the Middle East. We pray for peace in the hearts of all who are far from God and we ask for His mother to, as always, point the way to her Son and our Savior, Jesus Christ.

“And remember when the angels said, ‘O, Mary! God has chosen you, purified you and chosen you above the women of the world.”
—Koran 3:42

Prepping for……?

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I’m intrigued by those folks who are consumed with “prepping” their families for any of several big catastrophes yet-to-come. They stockpile food and water and many of them have elaborate home defense systems, energy reserves and secret “bug out” locations. Some of them, I’ll admit, kinda creep me out. Especially the ones who teach their toddlers to use weapons and who regularly chow down on roadkill or reptiles. But even so, I know that being prepared for an emergency is a good thing. If you live in an earthquake zone or in a place where tornadoes or hurricanes or snowstorms threaten (and that just about all of us) then it’s a good idea to have a stocked emergency kit and response plan in place.

One of the disaster scenarios that promises the most devastation is something called a nuclear Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) event. If some rogue country or terrorist group gets their hands on a nuclear bomb and detonates it at a fairly high altitude, it would send out a sort of gigantic lightning strike into the atmosphere. This would, according to many sources, cripple or destroy most of our modern electronics. In a few seconds, our satellite communications systems would be gone. Electrical grids would fail. Most cars and other small engines wouldn’t work anymore. Planes would fall from the skies. In a flash, everything we’ve come to rely on so heavily in our modern world would be gone. Things like clean running water, stocked supermarkets, working hospitals and reliable emergency services—all would be gone. We’d be back to pioneer days. If you didn’t have access to clean water, you’d be dead in just a few days. Your food would be limited to what you have on hand in your pantry or whatever wildlife you could trap or kill. If you need medication, your at-home supply would soon run out. In a few weeks, our society would begin to seriously break down as desperate people seek food wherever they can find it. It sounds horrifying.

And it probably won’t happen. Yes, it’s within the realm of possibility, but so are the odds of winning the lottery. As for me, I’ll stock up on a few essentials like bottled water and toilet paper and coffee…and carry on. We can imagine several doomsday scenarios like the extreme preppers do, or we can live our lives and prepare for the very real future of our own mortality. This is something we KNOW is going to happen but most of us are pretty good at not thinking about. And yet we’re constantly moving towards that transition.

I say “transition” and not “end” because as a Christian, I know that I’ve been created for eternal life. “Prepping” for us means allowing Christ to live in us and through us every day, in every moment. We do this in a group called “His Church” and He gives us everything we need to follow Him. We receive His grace, His very life, in the Sacraments He’s given us. He draws us to Himself as we gather around His altar with our parish family. We build one another up and use our different gifts to glorify Him and to serve one another. We grow in mercy and kindness and patience. We sin and ask for His forgiveness and then we try again. We carry the cross He has given us and we look to the Saints for inspiration and prayerful support. We ask our Blessed Mother to lead us closer to her Son and we beg the angels to protect us from the forces of this fallen world. It’s not a journey designed for someone to go it alone, which is why Jesus left us a Church. In her, we find all that we need, the fullness of the treasury of our faith.

So as some prepare for the widespread loss of cellphones and CNN (oh happy day!), those of us who belong to Jesus will keep our eyes fixed on Christ. We’ll go to confession. We’ll go to Mass and receive the gift of His Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity in the Holy Eucharist. We’ll pray that we my decrease and that He may increase. I’ll pray that Jesus will help me to be kind and to live each day with joy. I’ll beg for His mercy on me, an undeserving sinner. I’ll give thanks for all His many blessings and I’ll pray that I can be a blessing to others. So, yeah, maybe I’m a prepper after all.

“There are better things ahead than any we leave behind.”
—–C.S. Lewis

The Seal of the Confessional

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I’m a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock movies. “The Birds” scared me to death as a kid. Still does. I love his casting choices and his camera angles. It’s great fun anticipating his cameo appearances on screen. I guess my favorites are “Rear Window and “The Man Who Knew Too Much’ with “Strangers on a Train” a close third. But there’s one that I’ll bet you’ve never seen and it’s a real gem. “I Confess” is the story of a priest (Montgomery Clift) who becomes the subject of a murder investigation. The real murderer has confessed his sin to the priest but because the good father is bound by the “seal of the confessional” he can’t tell the police and thereby clear his name. It’s suspense at its best.

It would have been so simple for the priest to go to the detective (Karl Malden) and tell him who the murderer was. No jail, no trial, no electric chair. But he couldn’t. He was bound to maintain the sacred seal of privacy. This seal means that no priest can ever, under any circumstance, reveal what he has heard in the sacrament of confession, at least in a way that would identify the penitent. He can’t discuss anyone’s confession in a manner that would reveal the person’s identity, even in seeking advice from another priest or even his bishop. This has been a practice of the Catholic Church for many hundreds of years and was made a part of Church law in 1215. So Montgomery Clift’s character does exactly what he’s supposed to do—he says nothing.

Why does the Church do this? So that no one should ever fear that their sins will be made known to anyone other than their priest-confessor and The Lord. You can go to confession and be completely honest with him because he’ll never reveal what you’ve told him. No sinner need ever avoid seeking God’s mercy because there is a sacred trust of confidentiality. There are certain situations where the priest must seek the counsel of his bishop. Even then, the penitent’s name is never revealed. If the priest breaks this seal he is automatically excommunicated and this can only be mitigated by the Pope himself.

This trust between penitent and priest has been generally respected by the courts in our country. Like other relationships requiring confidentiality, like an attorney and their client or a therapist or physician and their patient, most courts have allowed confessions to remain secret. Certainly if someone confesses a criminal act to a priest in confession, the priest may encourage them to surrender themselves to the authorities, but that’s all the priest can do.

Unfortunately a recent court case in Louisiana is challenging the absolute privacy of the confessional. A parish priest heard the confession of a young lady who told him she had been sexually-abused by a member of their parish (who is now deceased). Her family has sued the priest for not reporting the abuse to the police. Initial findings by the Louisiana Supreme Court are challenging the Church’s protection of the confessional. And while the final court decisions are still pending, this is another unsettling assault on the Church. The Diocese of Baton Rouge will continue to protect the responsibility of the priest to remain silent. This is crucial to Catholics, but it should be concerning to all Americans. The Establishment Clause of our Constitution protects churches from government intrusion. This is what is also being violated by the Affordable Care Act. Now in Louisiana, the Church is being challenged again. As Americans, we believe in the free exercise of our faith—and that our faith should be free from governmental regulation. Whether or not you’re Catholic, if you believe in our Constitution, this is serious.

“Religious freedom is the lifeblood of the American people, the cornerstone of American government.”
—Timothy Cardinal Dolan
Archbishop of New York

Marked For Christ

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Monograms. They’re everywhere you look these days: on tee shirts and tote bags, on water bottles and baby clothes and the back windshields of cars and trucks. Pinterest and etsy are full of ideas and items that are personalized with your initials. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got no problems with monogramming anything that will sit still for it. After all, I’m from the South where we’re practically born monogrammed. Everything is fair game. Here in Georgia, if there’s anything we ladies love better than the sound of our voices, it’s the sight of our own initials. It marks things as belonging to us and only us. It’s our sign.

But not all letters and signs are just for show. Right now in Iraq the homes of Christians are being marked with the Arabic version of the letter “N” which stands for “Nazarene.” It means that the family living there belongs to Jesus of Nazareth. It’s a kind of monogram that sets the Christians of Iraq, who are mostly Catholic, apart from other religions and the Muslim majority. Now that ISIS is in charge in many places in Iraq, being marked as a Christian also means being marked for death unless you’re willing to convert to Islam. The video and photographs coming out of Iraq are horrifying. Children are beheaded while their parents are forced to watch. Mothers and fathers have their throats slashed in front of their toddlers. It’s absolutely inhuman and heartbreaking. During the Holocaust, Jews were made to wear a Star of David on their sleeves by the Nazis. Then millions of them were rounded up and transported to the death camps where they were tattooed with their prison number on their forearms before being murdered for their faith. St. Maximilian Kolbe was killed in Auschwitz (Prisoner #16670) when he gave his life in exchange for another prisoner. Grace in the midst of hell.

The Iraqi Christians and Fr. Kolbe were marked in another way, as well. They were baptized with water and with the Sign of the Cross. This “monogram” is invisible to human eyes, but baptism marks every Christian with an indelible sign of belonging to Jesus Christ. In baptism, Christ claims us as a member of His family and an heir of His inheritance. Sometimes we may forget that this inheritance also marks us for suffering in this world. Belonging to Christ also includes belonging to His Holy Cross. This Cross is being carried today by Christians all over the world who are suffering and dying because they belong to “The Nazarene.” In Iraq and Egypt, in Nigeria and China, in Somalia and India and in dozens of other countries, Christians face persecution, imprisonment and death (www.worldwatchlist.us/) Our faith can cost us our earthly lives, which is something those of us living in a free country sometimes forget.

When we wear that monogrammed necklace or tee shirt, it proclaims us as individuals. In effect, you’re wearing who you are. If you wear a crucifix or a cross around your neck, it proclaims that your life was purchased at a great price. It should change the way you live in the world, just as the grace of your baptism does. We are the precious and blood-bought children of a great and loving God, Who weeps to see His children suffering.

If you want to do something to help, the Knights of Columbus is a charitable organization of Catholic men who are actively providing support to the persecuted Christians in Iraq. In fact, the Knights will match your donations, dollar for dollar. Your gifts are tax-deductible and the Knights pledge that 100% of the money they receive will go to refugee relief in Iraq and the surrounding region. You can trust this charity. As Christians who share the same “monogram” with our faith family in Iraq, we are called by Christ to help them. Please consider a gift to the Knights at http://www.KofC.org/Iraq or K of C Christian Refugee Relief, Knights of Columbus Charities, P.O. Box 1966, New Haven, CT 06509-1966.

“For an immediate end to the violence and destruction of life in Iraq, especially as it is directed to native Christians, that these evils will be defeated by efforts for peace and justice. Let us pray to The Lord.
—Lord, hear our prayer.”

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