Another Country, Not My Own

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Because he would not permit same-sex marriages in his diocese, the Bishop was put into prison. The court appointed a secular committee to oversee the running of the diocese in his absence. They closed many parishes and schools and rewrote the Liturgy to “make it more inclusive and progressive.” When the Bishop later died in prison, his successor rallied his flock to return the diocese to Church guidance. This was met with protests and street demonstrations led by violent anti-Catholic groups. Three weeks into his leadership, the new Bishop was beaten to death as he tried to talk with a group of protestors outside a church. His death was the first of many, until churches and cathedrals only existed in the dreams and memories of a handful of the faithful. They met together in secret and taught the Gospel and the Catechism to their children. In three lifetimes, the Church once again emerged from the shadows and helped their country begin to find its way. It was a time when many saints were made by God to save the faith.

This hasn’t happened in America. Yet. But it may not be too far into our future. I based this little vision on something Francis Cardinal George of Chicago said in 2010. In an interview, he said: “I expect to die in my bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the Church has done so often in human history.” The Cardinal may not have been speaking as a prophet, but it’s prudent that we pay heed to his words and consider what they might mean for our Church and our country.

Francis Cardinal George has seen the Catholic Church in America for the last seven decades. Born in 1937, he contracted polio at age 13. He was ordained in 1963 and has served the Church as priest, Bishop, and Cardinal since then. In 2006 he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer for which he received treatment. His resignation from Church office was accepted last year. Since then Cardinal George has lived quietly at his residence while receiving medical care. In the span of his one lifetime, the Cardinal has witnessed the Catholic Church in America go from being a highly-respected provider of education, health services and spiritual guidance with an abundance of priests serving growing parishes to…something else. Parish numbers and active priests have decreased, especially in northern states. The sex-abuse crisis has damaged the trust of many people. The secular press seems to make every effort to attack the Church. We see restrictions and impositions from the government regarding the free practice of our faith under the Affordable Health Care Act. Colleges and universities regularly restrict the activities of Christians on their campuses. Slowly but inexorably it’s becoming harder and harder to live our faith in the public arena. When you think about it, Cardinal George may be a prophet after all.

Today’s news comes from San Francisco, where many are up in arms about the Archbishop. His Excellency Salvatore Cordileone wants teachers in his Catholic schools to adhere to Catholic teaching. This means teaching what the Church has taught for centuries. Marriage is ordained by God as between one man and one woman. Abortion is a grave sin. Human life is sacred. Protestors want him removed due to his “outdated” beliefs. This Archbishop is standing his ground, but legal challenges are yet to be decided. Once again, the courts may intrude on the free practice of religion in America.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the Catholic Church in our country and elsewhere is under attack. But then the Church has always been under attack. The Roman Empire put Christians to death—and the Roman Empire fell. Catholics have been imprisoned and martyred for their faith for centuries. And yet the Church remains. We remain because of what Jesus promised to the Church He founded on St. Peter: “…the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”(Matthew 16:18). Christ is with us. Christ goes before us. The Church is His spotless and holy Bride. But the times we live in demand us to be watchful, faithful and prayerful. And kind. Many who attack the faith have never felt the charity of the faithful. We also have to vote in support of those who will respect freedom of religion. Know your faith. Love your faith. And put on the armor of God.

“Therefore put on the full armor of God so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground…”
—Philippians 6:13

Our Treasure

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Recently I attended the funeral of an old friend at a parish in an adjacent state. Another friend, a non-Catholic, went with me. On the drive to the funeral Mass, I talked with her about Communion and let her know that only Catholics may receive the Holy Eucharist at Mass. She didn’t ask me any questions, but only nodded. During Mass, she stood and kneeled with the rest of us. The priest informed the mourners that only Catholics could receive the Eucharist, but that all were welcome to come forward to receive a blessing. My friend chose to stay in our pew when I walked up for Holy Communion. On the trip home, she was quiet and thoughtful. She talked a little about how different Mass was from the services at her church. Finally, as she was getting out of my car, she turned back and said, “You have a treasure in that Catholic Eucharist.”

Yes, we do. A Treasure, indeed. And yet some Catholics don’t embrace or adore our Savior present in the Holy Eucharist. We see it in the life of our parishes, when we fail to teach our children of the beauty and holiness of the Blessed Sacrament. When we enter the presence of God without reverence, or when we talk and laugh in our pews before Mass begins, we fail to honor Him. If we receive communion in a state of sin, we not only dishonor Jesus, we compound our sinfulness. The line for Communion is long, but all too often the line for Confession is very short. We hear of even worse disrespect by some careless or thoughtless priests who fail in their vocation to reveal the truth of the Holy Eucharist to their flocks. Many of us in the pews can become tepid in our faith, too. We can forget that we are at Calvary whenever we go to Mass. It can slip our minds that when we kneel before the Eucharist, we are kneeling before the Lamb of God, Emmanuel, the Creator, the Alpha and Omega—the Savior of the world. Sometimes it takes the words of an outsider to remind us of our Treasure.

There was a 2010 Pew Research Survey which revealed that only about 45% of Catholics in America believe that the Eucharist is truly the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ. More than half of us don’t realize Who we receive in Holy Communion. St. Ignatius of Antioch (35 – 107AD) wrote that “without the Eucharist there is no Church.” If there is a wound at the heart of Catholicism it is this unbelief in the Holy Eucharist. It reveals itself in the number of Catholics who don’t come to Mass, in the parishes and schools that are being closed and in a hundred other heartbreaking ways. But the most damaging and painful wound is how much our unbelief must hurt our Lord. This Treasure of Himself that He gave to his Church sometimes isn’t being treasured. You see, the truth of Who the Eucharist really is doesn’t depend on our belief. Whether or not we believe that Jesus is really and truly present in the Holy Eucharist—He is. We know this is true because He told us so Himself. St. Paul taught us this. From St. Peter to Pope Francis, the Catholic Church has always affirmed this belief. Our Catechism puts it simply: “The Eucharist is the Source and Summit of the Christian life”(para. 1324). Source and Summit. Where we come from and to Whom we aspire. Alpha and Omega.

I heard a priest once say that if the Church was handing out hundred dollar bills at every Mass, the line to come in would be miles long out the door. And yet at every Mass, we are given a Treasure beyond all the money and gold in the world—and yet people don’t come, or if they do come, many may not know Who is waiting for them. Some choose other churches because “Mass is boring.” As if an intimate encounter with Jesus Christ could be boring. My friend realized that truth at the funeral Mass we attended together. She realized Who the Eucharist is. As Catholics, we need to pray that The Lord awakens this believe in all of us and opens our eyes and our hearts to this Treasure of our faith. He is our Source and our Summit.

“A Christian life whose weekly high point is essentially a concert followed by a lecture (even a very good lecture) is not going to have the kind of otherworldly power as one where you get to eat and drink God. It just can’t hold a candle.”
—Fr. Andrew Damick

The Soldier’s Faith

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In my parish church we have beautiful plaques depicting the Stations of the Cross. These stations tell the visual story of Christ’s last hours. Traditionally, the 14 stations start with his arrest in Gethsemane and end when His Body is placed in the tomb. In our stations, there is the figure of a Roman soldier who follows Christ’s journey along the way. And, at the crucifixion, the artist gives the soldier a halo as he gazes on the suffering Christ. It’s at that moment when the soldier is transformed from a pagan employee of the Empire into a new believer in Jesus Christ. In Catholic tradition, the soldier’s name is Longinus and he is the centurion who thrust his lance into Christ’s side after His death. It was St. Longinus who then proclaimed, “In truth, this man was the Son of God” (Matthew 27:54).

Often when I’m sitting in “my” pew at church, my eyes follow this centurion as he helps guard Christ through His trial and condemnation, and then as He carries His cross to the hill at Golgotha. Each station shows this soldier carefully observing Christ. His eyes never leave Him. Jesus is tortured and beaten. He falls down again and again under the weight of the cross. Jesus is dirty, bleeding and exhausted. The centurion looks regal and important in his spotless Imperial uniform. The two men couldn’t look more different. And yet the centurion is transfixed by this beaten man. He walks with Jesus, seeing Him struggle to bear the weight of the cross in His weakened state. Jesus meets His mother and Longinus watches. Our Lord’s face is wiped of sweat and blood by St. Veronica, and Longinus watches. He sees Jesus stripped of His garments and stands looking when He is nailed to the cross. Surely Longinus must know why this Nazarene is being put to death by Rome. He’s heard the stories. He knows a bit about the Jews and their laws about blasphemy. And he’s witnessed dozens of other crucifixions. Oh yes. His superiors make good use of the cross. And yet, there’s something different about this one. This Jesus. Longinus can’t take His eyes from Him. It’s as though the Person of Jesus Christ is revealed to Longinus in His faithful suffering and tender self-sacrifice.

I pray to be more like St. Longinus. I don’t always keep my eyes fixed on Jesus. I stumble and I fall. I let myself be distracted by the things of the world. Unlike my savior, I care about what others think of me. I want to be admired and respected. I’m prideful and full of conceit. I try to do everything myself. When St. Longinus witnessed Jesus’ death on the cross, his heart was filled with faith and he allowed the Holy Spirit to open his eyes. “In truth this man was the Son of God.” Am I willing to be such a fearless proclaimer of Christ crucified?

During Lent, we journey with Chris as He moves through His Passion and death towards the resurrection of Easter morning. Like St. Longinus, we’re called to participate in Jesus’ suffering. We meditate on the Stations of the Cross. We imagine ourselves being there, seeing Jesus, seeing His pain and suffering. And knowing that He’s doing all of this for me and for you. Every drop of His Precious Blood is given out of love, to save us. His very life, poured out in love.

St. Longinus allowed God to enter His heart and reveal the truth of Jesus to him. Tradition tells us that Longinus left military service, became a monk, and was ultimately killed for his faith in Christ. I pray that God will fill my heart with that depth of love for His Son. I pray that my eyes too will always be fixed on Christ. And that, like St. Longinus, I will always fearlessly proclaim Christ crucified and give my life over to Him, every day, every hour, every moment. May all of us experience the sweet love of our Lord on our journey through Lent. Amen.

“I do not pray for success; I ask for faithfulness.”
—-Blessed Mother Teresa

Called To Kindness

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She’s out there almost every day of the year. Now in her mid-eighties, sometimes the weather keeps her inside, but even that is rare. When the tide goes out on the beach near her home, she goes walking. You’ll see her with her head bent searching the rocks, bundled against the constant wind, carefully stepping down along the way in her rubber boots. She’s looking for starfish. In this part of Ireland, the tides are quick and extreme, by our standards. And when the waters pull back out to sea, they strand starfish on the rocks. Unable to swim, they’re stuck there until the next tide comes in, many hours later. If the sun is out, they can dry up and die. My sweet old friend can’t bear that, so she patrols her stretch of beach and when she finds a stranded starfish, she picks it up and drops it in the basket she carries. She says when she was younger she’d throw each one back into the water as soon as she’d find it, but that doing that now is hard on her shoulder. She waits til she’s done and then empties her basket into the sea when she’s finished with her walk. You see, she’s been doing this for more than sixty years. How many starfish do you think you’ve returned to the water in all those years, I ask her. Oh, a lot, I imagine, she says. I do a little math and calculate that her efforts have easily helped more than a hundred thousand starfish over the decades.

My friend doesn’t know the Loren Eisley story about the man who saves starfish, like she does. In the story when he’s confronted about the futility of his mission, it doesn’t faze him. “You can’t save them all. What you’re doing doesn’t make a difference.” The old man picks up another starfish and throws it back into the water. “It makes a difference to this one,” he replies.

You could certainly argue that the limited efforts of one old lady on a tiny stretch of beach aren’t going to effect starfish populations worldwide. True. I even wonder how many of those starfish get picked up and “saved” again after the next low tide. But that misses the point, I think, just as the often-told Eisley story misses the point. For me, it’s not about the starfish, but it’s about how acts of kindness change our own hearts. And the world.

I believe that kindness is its own reward. You never know the effects of an act of kindness, nor is that even a consideration for us. As Christians, we’re called to charity and sacrifice. That’s how we follow Jesus. We give because He gives. We love because He loves. We bend over and pick up the fallen and the stranded because that’s what He does for us. We don’t stop to consider the cost of our kindness or even the “good” that it accomplishes. We just do it. We reflect Christ’s charity, which is freely given to everyone, whether they treasure it or not. The act of loving and caring for others is transformational in and of itself. Kindness exercises the muscles of our hearts just as a workout at the gym conditions our physical bodies.

Over the decades, my friend has enjoyed her walks on the beach every day and she’s doubtless helped thousands of starfish in the process. But what she’s really done is to live a life caring for the least of God’s creations. Everyone who sees her is reminded that we can all make a difference in the world, and that no act of charity is every lost. God sees even our smallest kindnesses: a smile, a hug, a word of encouragement. Or one little starfish given another chance to live another day.

“The great acts of love are done by those who are habitually performing small acts of kindness.”
—-Victor Hugo

Are You Being Called?

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I stopped being surprised years ago at how many protestants come to our parish on Ash Wednesday. As a convert myself, I know the appeal of those ashes on our foreheads. They say, “I’m a sinner saved by God’s mercy and without Him, I’m lost.” That’s a strong message in a few little bits of ash. And that’s the thing about the Catholic faith. We have a lot to offer. And I’ll bet, deep down, you know it, too. No matter your denomination, or even if you don’t belong to any church, there’s something about the Catholic Church that draws you in, and you want to know more, even if you don’t know exactly why.

To begin with, you love the Bible and you revere it as the inspired word of God. Yet for hundreds of years after Christ’s death and resurrection, there was no Bible. It wasn’t until the fourth century that the Catholic Church assembled the Bible into one collection of texts. Jesus didn’t leave us a book, He left us a Church and He empowered it with the grace of the Holy Spirit.

This early Church as first called “Catholic” by Bishop Ignatius of Antioch in 107 AD. It was a Church founded on the Gospel of Jesus Christ, made up of deacons, priests, and bishops, led by the Bishop of Rome. Just as the Church today gathers to worship at the altar of God, so did that early Church. St. Peter and St. Paul were Bishops in this Church, with St. Peter being the first Pope.

Deep down, you’re drawn to the permanence and history of the Catholic Church. You know we’ve been on earth since the days of Jesus and no power or circumstance will diminish His flock. You know that Holy Communion is more than just a symbol. You can read Jesus’ own words and know that. After all, He never said, “This is a symbol of My Body…this is a symbol of My Blood.” When you see Catholics kneel and worship before the Blessed Sacrament, you know we’re kneeling before the King of Kings and not just a piece of bread. You love the reverence of Mass and the beauty of our churches. Catholics worship with our senses as well as with our hearts and souls and that seems only right. We stand, we sit, we kneel. We hear the bells and smell the incense while candles glow around us and lift us out of our everydayness. Mass means more than that and you know it, too. The Liturgy connects you to God and to heaven in a deep and profound way.

You know that Mary is important in our salvation story. When God chose her to be the mother of our Savior, He gave us the best model of the Christian life that we could ever know. Her purity, faith, humility, and trust in God shows us how to live. Mary and all the Saints are our role models because their lives reflect the light of Christ. They are our faith family, alive now in heaven and they long to pray for us, if we only ask them. You know that the Church’s unfailing defense of human life from conception to natural death is right and true and will never change. The Catholic Church’s teaching on the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman is the truth that God has revealed to us in the Bible. It’s good to know that the truth never changes, even if society wants it to “get with the times.”

So we welcome you to come and get to know us and ask us any questions you may have. Come to Mass. Or come by just to sit and pray in the presence of The Lord in the Most Blessed Sacrament. We are all looking for the peace that only Jesus can give us. All of us know what it feels like to search for the meaning of life and our place and purpose in the world. The Lord gave us His Church so that we can know how we fit in and to help us along our journey with Christ. Open the door and know that you’re welcome here.

“One road leads home and a thousand roads lead into the wilderness.”
—-C.S. Lewis

The Garden of Lent

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It’s a bitterly cold morning here with wind chills below zero, but that doesn’t stop me from thinking about spring. I love looking through seed catalogs and imagining all those beautiful flowers in bloom. And nothing warms the heart of this Southern woman like the taste of that first ripe tomato. Gardens give us new life. They sustain us, both in food and in beauty. Our gardens remind us of that first Garden, created in perfection until we disobeyed. What was once effortless in grace is now the result of toil and sweat. Yet beauty and sustenance remain for us.

Jesus spoke a lot about gardens and vineyards. These symbols were things His followers knew and understood. And those images still ring true for us. God’s wisdom places Lent at this time each year. Lent means “spring” after all. It’s that season when we take stock of the garden of our lives. Just as the gardens that we plant outside need attention and planning and pruning—so do our souls. So think of Lent as an investment in the mercy and grace of The Lord which allows our harvest of charity to increase and flourish. Let’s look at how we can use our Lenten journey to glorify and God and be ready for His great gift of Easter.

1) Prepare the soil. You can’t expect a bountiful harvest if you don’t make the effort to prepare yourself. Take an honest look at yourself. Examine your conscience. What keeps you from doing’ God’s will for your life? Name it and confess it.

2) Choose your plants. Where do you feel called or gifted to serve God? Maybe you’re an encourager or a mentor. Perhaps you have a gift for music or writing or organizing. Where can you put your gifts for His good purpose?

3) Get planting! It’s easy to think about doing something, but we’re called to follow Jesus and not just think about following Him. Commit yourself to daily prayer and reflection. Fast. Go to Mass and Adoration as often as possible. Be kind to one another. Bear your crosses with joy and thanksgiving.

4) Feed your garden. Frequent Holy Communion is nourishment for your soul. The Bread of Heaven is our hope and our sustenance. Receive Him worthily and the treasury of God’s grace will fill your life to overflowing.

5) Weed your garden. Form good habits that replace your bad ones. Turn off the television and pick up a good book. Pick up THE good book. Are there people in your life that are stumbling blocks to your spiritual good? Spend time with folks who encourage you and build you up in your Lenten journey.

6) Watch your garden grow. Take time to rest in The Lord and reflect on what He is revealing to you. Walk with Him in the cool of the day, like Adam and Eve did in that first, perfect Garden. Don’t neglect the peace of a Sunday afternoon spent in the presence of God. There is great growth in these times given over to Him.

7) Harvest and share your bounty. Easter will be here before we know it. Your Lenten garden is your gratitude to God for His great gift of the Holy Cross and our salvation. When we grow in Christ, we’re called to share the Gospel with others. Start with loving and caring for your family and ask The Lord to show you where He needs you most. Your mission has just begun.

“In simply humility, let our gardener God landscape you with the Word, making a salvation-garden of your life.”
—James 1:21

Looking Home

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The older I become, the more time I spend thinking of my past. I guess middle age has that effect on some of us. My grandparents did it and my parents did it and now it’s my turn. I can be driving down the highway reviewing my plans for the day when a song comes on the radio and instantly, I’m seventeen again without a care in the world. Or I smell a distinctive aftershave and I’m immediately a little girl, sitting in my daddy’s lap as he works on the newspaper crossword puzzle. Memories. The veil that separates today from all those yesterdays seems to be getting thinner and thinner. I think a lot about my childhood home. I hear the cows mooing in the backyard pasture. I taste a salted tomato, still warm from the sun. I see my mom cooking our supper or my brother tossing his football.

These kinds of memories are often called “nostalgia.” This is a Greek word that means “longing for home.” That rings true for me, as I was blessed to come from a loving home. Maybe for others, that nostalgia may be for whatever time or place in their lives that represents a safe and accepting place to them. Memories like this are often most aching when we experience the death of someone we love. Standing at my mother’s graveside the past, the present and the future are all together in that one spot. I remember her from the past. I miss her now. And I anticipate seeing her again in heaven. I am nostalgic for that moment. God has designed us to have that homesickness for heaven because that’s why we were created. I suppose I’m thinking of heaven more these days because as I age, more and more of my family and friends have already made the journey. Sorting through my mother’s things after she died, I came across her address book. Most of the names in it were crossed out. As we lose the ones we’ve loved in this life, our eyes and our hearts turn ever more often to those distant hills that shelter our forever home.

I think the saints are consumed with that yearning for heaven. Their lives are extraordinarily fixed on the eternal presence of The Lord. Like St. Paul, they feel that powerful pull to the home they’ve never seen. He wrote about the Jewish saints like Sarah and Abraham and Noah saying, “…they were longing for a better country, a heavenly one”(Hebrews 11:16). But so many of us have an impoverished idea of the reality of paradise. Who among us longs for an eternity of playing harps on fluffy clouds? Surely the earliest Christians did not die as martyrs for this boring reward. No, we can see what they imagined heaven to be from the paintings they left for us on the walls of the catacombs. Their heaven was a beautiful garden, filled with children and animals playing together, with parties and banquets and feasting and singing. It was a real, living Garden of Eden. Heaven was their home and they were willing to lay down their lives to go there. In St. John’s Revelation, we can see what The Lord showed to His beloved disciple. “I saw an angel standing in the sun. He cried out in a loud voice to all the birds flying overhead, ‘Come! Gather for the great banquet of God’ “(Rev. 19:17). It’s a party alright. One filled beyond our knowing with an over-abundance of joy and love: with our Lord. We’ll be with our loved ones and with new friends, with the angels and the choirs. And there’ll be surprises, because our God is a god of surprises, after all. We’ll be free of sin, which is everything that has limited us on earth. As Dr. Peter Kreeft has said, “Jesus is our best indicator of Heaven.” What a wonderful place to live! No wonder we long for it so deeply. He is our beginning and our end, our Alpha and our Omega. “He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together”(Colossians 1:17). That includes you and me. As we journey through Lent this year, let’s focus less on giving something up and more on loving and serving Jesus and the people in our lives. Let’s keep our hearts moving to our heavenly home, with joy and gratitude.

“Oh my delight, Lord of all created things and my God! How long must I wait to see You?”
—St. Teresa of Avila
(1515-1582)

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