“My” Saints

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We’ve all seen those “reality” shows that follow the celebrity-of-the-minute in their daily lives. Most of them have one or more personal assistants. These are the people that do all the real work around the place. They organize and schedule, they burp the babies and clean the house, thus allowing the celebrity to get their hair and makeup done (also by someone else), have an overly-dramatic love life and generally lounge about eating organic, free-range, calorie-free bon-bons.

But I’ve got those reality stars beat. And by a long shot. You see I have an entire group of people working for me. All of them pull 24-hour shifts with no vacations or sick leave. They never complain, never dawdle, and each one of them is faithful, funny, filled with joy and completely unique. They’re my “heavenly committee” of the saints that I love. Just as you ask your friends and family to pray for you, I ask my committee to take my prayers with them to Jesus. After all, these are the folks who love Jesus with their whole hearts and whose earthly lives showed us how to walk with Christ each and every day, through every trial and sorrow and every grace and blessing. Each one of them reveals His mercy and love in different ways to me and they teach me humility and patience and surrender. I can’t imagine my life without their friendship and assistance.

God created us for relationships. He never meant for us to go it alone. God IS relationship, after all, in the mystery of the Holy Trinity. Jesus sent His disciples out in pairs. He founded a Church made up of believers coming together for prayer and worship. We’re bound to one another in the love of the Holy Spirit, both in this life and our lives-to-come with Him in heaven. Since about the year 100 A.D., the practice of asking those in heaven to pray for us had become a common one. St. John wrote about it in Revelation 5:8 when he says that the saints in heaven offer our prayer to God “as golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” Since saints in glory are in complete communion with The Lord, those prayers have to be for us. When we ask them to pray for our needs, God hears them and it pleases Him. Just like He hears the prayers of our family and friends on earth. Do you have prayer partners or prayer chains or teams in your church? They are doing exactly what the saints are doing—offering prayers for you to God. Jesus told us to pray for one another (Matthew 5:44) as did St. Paul (I Timothy 2:1-4). It’s good for us to do this. It’s an act of love.

Catholics don’t worship the saints. Asking them to pray for us is as “natural” as asking a friend to pray for us. The statues and paintings and stained glass images of the saints you see in our churches are reminders to us of their lives and examples. It’s like the photos you carry in your wallet to remind you of your family and friends. You don’t worship the photos, you just like being reminded of your love for the people in them. Saints aren’t divine. They’re not angels. They’re people like you and me who are alive in heaven—just like we hope to be someday. After all, each of us is called to sainthood.

Even if you don’t come from a Christian tradition like Catholicism or the Eastern Orthodox Church, why wouldn’t you want the saints in heaven to be praying for you and your family? These are the members of our faith who got it right, who ran the good race and who live now in the very presence of God for all eternity. I’d like to invite everyone reading these words to learn about a saint whose life interests them. Allow Jesus to introduce you to His closest family. You can start with “my committee” if you’d like.

There’s St. Therese of Lisieux who teaches me how to love Jesus as a little child loves her Daddy. St. Catherine of Siena helps me to have courage and to find answers to my questions about my faith. St. Maximilian Kolbe was a priest who gave his own life for a fellow prisoner while they were in the death camp in Auschwitz. He teaches me charity and sacrifice. St. Pio of Pietrelcino (Padre Pio) teaches me to let God be in charge and to ask for miracles every day. There are lots of other saints that I love as well, but googling these names should get you started. They’re waiting to take your prayers, like a golden bowl of incense, and present your praise and your needs to our Lord. Just ask them.

When I die, I will send down a shower of roses from heaven. I will spend my heaven by doing good on earth.”
—St. Therese of Lisieux
(1873 – 1897)

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Good Pope John

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The Sunday following Easter is celebrated in the Catholic Church as “Divine Mercy Sunday.” In the spirit of the Easter season, this is a day when we give special thanks to the Lord for His great mercy and we pray that every person on earth knows that God loves them and forgives them of their sins. This devotion to Jesus’ mercy was something that Pope John Paul II had promoted during his papacy. It’s fitting that on this Divine Mercy Sunday he’ll be named a saint. Joining him in sainthood that day will be another pope, John XXIII, also known as “Good Pope John.” While most of us have clear memories of Pope John Paul II, who was our pope for 27 years from 1978 until 2005, fewer of us remember Pope John XXIII.

He was born Angelo Roncali in 1881 in Sotte il Monte, a village of 1200 at the foot of the Italian Alps. His family had lived there since 1429. The future pope was one of 14 children and his family farmed for a living. Their cows shared the ground floor of their home with them. He grew up happy and loved and in 1904, was ordained to the priesthood. He rose to the College of Cardinals in 1953 and was elected Pope in 1958 at the age of 76. Most officials within the Church expected him to be a kind of “caretaker” Pope from whom little innovation or real leadership would be expected. Good Pope John surprised everyone by calling for a worldwide Church council—the Second Vatican Council—which would transform Roman Catholicism. Though his papacy lasted just 5 years, his influence on our faith has been remarkable and lasting. Yet aside from his calling for Vatican II, he’s best remembered for his sense of humor. In his honor, here are a few of his most well-known quotes:

—When a reporter asked Pope John, “How many people work in the Vatican,?” he replied,”Oh, about half.”

—On another occasion,a Vatican official told him that it would be “absolutely impossible” to open the Second Vatican Council by 1963. “Fine, we’ll open it in 1962,” the Pope answered. And they did.

—The Pope was often the butt of his own jokes. He often laughed about his appearance—big ears, large nose, and round figure. One day after a session with a photographer, he said, “From all eternity God knew that I was going to be Pope. He had 80 years to work on me. Why did He make me so ugly?”

—He joked about his humble origins, too. “Italians come to ruin most generally in three ways: women, gambling, and farming. My father chose the most boring one.”

—Becoming Pope might have surprised him a bit. “It often happens that I wake up at night and begin to think about a serious problem and I decide I must tell the Pope about it. Then I wake up completely and remember that I am the Pope.” And another one: “Anybody can be Pope: the proof of this is that I have become one!”

—Lastly, he was once at a dinner party where a woman was seated across from him wearing a very low-cut dress. His papal secretary turned to him and whispered, “What a scandal! That woman—everyone’s looking at her!” “No one’s looking at her,” said Pope John. “Everyone’s looking at ME to see if I’M looking at her!”

Both popes, John Paul II and John XXIII, lived lives of humility and service and millions of the faithful join together in giving thanks to God for both of them. And both men are proof that being saints means sharing the joy (and laughter) of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

“I live by the mercy of Jesus, to Whom I owe everything and from Whom I expect everything.”
—Pope John XXIII

A Man of Sorrows

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The images of Holy Week draw us into the drama of Christ’s last few days before Calvary. On Palm Sunday we hear the crowds shouting, “Hosanna!” as Jesus enters Jerusalem There’s a kind of frenzy in the air. Lots of people are following Jesus. Lots of soldiers are following Jesus. He’s coming to celebrate the Passover feast with his friends. He’s coming to suffer and to die, betrayed by a friend and denied by a friend. And He’s coming to rise from the grave on Easter morning.

We’re so familiar with the story that sometimes we gloss over the uncomfortable images in our haste to roll the stone away and cry, “Alleluia! He is risen!” It’s a common human mistake. In fact, it’s the core of the prosperity Gospel fad. But here’s the truth: Jesus said, “If anyone will come after Me, let him deny himself, take up His cross, and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24). He never tells us that if we follow Him we’ll be rich and powerful and healthy. Or even, happy. The saints have always known this. They view suffering and sacrifice as the doorway to an intimate relationship with Jesus.

In Jerusalem, the path that Jesus walked from His condemnation to Golgotha is called the “Via Dolorosa” or “Way of Sorrows.” This recalls the prophet Isaiah’s description of our Savior: “He was despised and rejected—a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief…”(Isaiah 53:3). Pilgrims today retrace His footsteps, stopping to pray and to remember His passion and suffering for our sake. The Stations of the Cross, these same instances as on the Jerusalem “way,” are in every Catholic Church and we pray them often during Lent. We recall how Christ was arrested, beaten, stripped, and burdened to carry His Cross. At each fall, at every humiliation and torture, we kneel and pray these words: “We adore You, O Christ, and we praise You, because by Your Holy Cross You have redeemed the world.” Christ performed many miracles of healing, and yet His miracles didn’t save us. He taught beautiful parables of mercy and forgiveness, yet His preaching didn’t save us. What saves us? His death on the Cross. And that’s what this week is about.

Last summer at World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, Pope Francis prayed the Stations of the Cross with more than a million young people. He asked them 3 questions. This week is a good time for us to ask ourselves these same questions: What have I left at the Cross? What has the Cross of Jesus left for me? What does the Cross teach me?

We pray to be more like Jesus. We beg Him to hold us close to His Sacred Heart. Yet it can be hard for us to accept the fact that suffering comes with that embrace. To be more like Him, we must walk the Via Dolorosa, too. We’re beaten down, spat upon, kicked and left alone with no one to stand up for us or defend us or make a case for us. We fall down. We get up. We fall down again. We get up again. Through our blood and sweat we can see that hill ahead of us, two crosses already there. Two thieves hang in agony and we know that soon, we’ll take our place between them. Each one of us bears a cross of suffering, just at the Church does. She is maligned, accused of every wrongdoing and shortcoming and sin. She will suffer because Her Spouse suffers. And She wouldn’t have it any other way. Her very life is in Him, and apart from His Cross, she is nothing but a social club: well-meaning but not life-giving. The glory and power of the Resurrection are bought at the terrible price of His suffering and death. On Good Friday, on the Cross, Easter looks a million miles away. But without suffering, without the power of His Blood, the stone of the tomb is impossibly heavy, unable to be rolled away. In these days of Holy Week, we walk with Jesus, and we weep.

“He was pierced for our transgressions. He was crushed for our sins. The punishment that brought us peace was on Him. And by His wounds we are healed.”
—–Isaiah 53:5

You’re Powerless

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You can never be good enough. You can never be kind enough. You can try as hard as you can, but you’ll never be humble enough or generous enough or merciful enough. You can strive every day to be patient and long-suffering, but it won’t work. You’ll never make it, no matter how virtuous and “good” you are and how hard and tirelessly you try.

You see, there’s nothing you can do to make God love you more.

Unlike all other religions, from Islam to Buddhism to animism, Christianity teaches its followers that God loves them totally and completely, just as they are. His love for you and for me is dependent on NOTHING that we can ever do or say. His love is His Nature and is contingent on nothing else.

Accepting this fact is life-changing. This is pure, unconditional love and most of us find it a radically-new experience. Only the love of parents can mirror in a human way the perfect love of God for His children. Far too many of us believe that we’re not worthy of this kind of overwhelming love. Somewhere deep inside of us is a list of stuff we think we have to do in order to MAKE God love us. I have to read the Bible more often. I have to tithe. I have to volunteer for more ministry work. Nope. To repeat: there’s nothing you can do to make God love you more. He already loves you perfectly. All you have to do is to accept that love.

There’s more good news, too. God is not impressed when you think you aren’t worthy of His love. In fact, there’s NOTHING you can do that will make God love you any less. Think about that for a minute. Probably you’ve always believed that when you do bad things, what we call “sin,” it makes God love you less. But it doesn’t. God IS love—–it’s His very Nature. He can’t not love you, no matter what you do or what you think of yourself.

Does your sin disappoint the Lord? Sure it does. It offends Him and it distances you from Him when you choose to sin. If it’s a serious sin, it can cut you off from a relationship with Him and endanger your immortal soul. It’s serious. But even in the middle of your worst possible sin—–God loves you just the same. One of my favorite Scripture verses promises us this: “…while we were still sinners, Christ died for us”(Romans 5:8). Before we even knew Him, He suffered and died for us on the Cross. That’s incredible love. It’s beyond our human imagination. And I think that’s part of why we can’t consider ourselves worthy of His love.

We please God when we take Him up on that love. When we turn away from our sin (repent) we find Him already there, already and always there, waiting to welcome us into His friendship. He’s never been anywhere else.

His love calls us into loving each other. This means loving even most the unlovable among us. That means loving sinners. Just like you and me. And it means forgiving people who have wronged us, even if they don’t apologize and even if we’re still angry or hurting. Forgiving others is being like Jesus, and when we love and forgive one another, it pleases Him.

Sometimes it’s tempting to make our faith really complicated. But the heart of it is pretty simple: to love and forgive others as Christ loves and forgives us. Easter is coming. And it’s all about His love for us and how much He wants to know us and have a relationship with us. We Catholics believe that Jesus rose from the grave on Easter morning. He wants to raise you from the dead, too. He wants you to know that you ARE good enough and kind enough—that none of your sins have changed how much He loves you. He wants you to know that you belong to Him, and you always will.

God loves each of us as if there were only one of us.”
—St. Augustine (354-430 AD)