The Rosary

One of the prayer practices most associated with us Catholics is praying the Rosary. It was in the news recently when someone who doesn’t know anything about it called it “extremist.” Even if you don’t know anything else about Catholicism, you’re familiar with folks, especially old ladies, fingering that rope of beads as they mumble some prayers. That’s about all I knew about rosaries when I became Catholic in 1977. I was going to a Catholic college back then and as soon as I was baptized I ran out and bought one. My favorite professor was an old Dominican priest and he blessed it for me. I learned the prayers so I could say them from memory. The problem was, I very rarely did. I liked the idea of the Rosary but actually praying it kind of left me frustrated and a bit confused. Here’s what I mean.

For those of you who might not know, the Rosary is a series of prayers centered on the Our Father and the Hail Mary. There are five groups of small beads (the Hail Marys) that are separated by larger beads (the Our Fathers). Depending on the day of the week, you meditate on 5 different events in Jesus’ life while you pray the 5 decades of the Hail Marys. These are called “mysteries” and include things like the birth of Jesus, His crowning with thorns, and the Resurrection. To me, the combination of the Hail Marys and the life of Christ is like looking at Jesus through His mother’s eyes. It’s a beautiful way to meditate on everything that Christ has done for us. The Rosary is like giving Jesus and Mary a bouquet of beautiful prayers–roses from my heart–which is where it got its name. What a beautiful way to pray. But I couldn’t do it. I felt guilty because I just couldn’t make myself pray the “most Catholic” of all prayers. I love Jesus and I love His mother but the Rosary was always a chore. I was easily distracted. I couldn’t keep my mind and heart centered on the mysteries while I was also saying the prayers. My mind wandered. I fell asleep. I looked for excuses not to pray it. Eventually I just quit altogether. I was more comfortable reading Scripture and letting the Lord open my heart to inspire my prayers. Mostly I just learned how to talk with God. My prayer life was okay–not great–but okay. Years might go by before I’d try another Rosary and realize again that it just wasn’t for me.

God was patient and helped me to grow in faith. Over the years He led me to understand something most Christians know early on: prayer isn’t about warm fuzzy feelings. Prayer has very little to do with how I feel or how I’d like to feel. Prayer is how God molds our hearts so that we can love like He loves and forgive like He forgives. Prayer works on us like the potter works the clay. In some mysterious way prayer makes us more and more like Jesus. Do I understand how this happens? No. Was I created to understand this? Maybe in heaven but not now. And I’m perfectly okay with that. I’m no theologian. I’m just a little soul trying to follow Jesus. When I realized that, the Rosary suddenly opened up to me. Now when I pray it, I let Jesus do all the work and I just follow Him, holding His mother’s hand. I quit struggling and started cooperating and the graces I began to receive increased. And the greatest of these graces is humility.

When I pray the Rosary I let Jesus show me His life while His mother gently reminds me that I’m completely dependent on her Son for everything. I need this every day. And in ways I don’t understand, the Rosary works on my soul like no other prayer or devotion. I don’t know how God does it but then I don’t know how He made the moon and the stars, or parted the Red Sea, or transformed water into wine. I don’t understand how He can bring love out of hate or good out of evil. And I don’t have to understand my redemption to know that God loves me enough to send His only Son to die for me and save me from my sins. The Rosary is just another facet of the mystery of His love. When I pray the Rosary I’m participating in the redemption mystery. It’s simple and it’s beautiful and I have no idea what I’m doing. But I know the One Who does.

“The greatest method of praying is to pray the Rosary.”

–St. Francis de Sales

The Life of God

Grace. It’s something we hear about a lot. In songs and books and sermons. But what is grace? Could you explain it to someone who isn’t a Christian? Or, for that matter, to a fellow believer? In my experience, most folks have a pretty fuzzy notion of what grace really is. Unfortunately, lots of people use grace to describe a feeling that they experience in certain situations. Grace means feeling close to God, or experiencing consolation in prayer or feeling uplifted in worship. 

In fact, grace isn’t a feeling or emotion at all. It’s the love and mercy of God, given freely and undeservedly to a believer. Grace is so fundamental to Christianity that St. Paul wrote that our relationship with Christ is “the gospel of the grace of God”(Acts 22:24). This grace is given to us first in Baptism, and then through the other Sacraments which Jesus instituted. There is actual grace and sanctifying grace, both of which justify and save us. “Grace is a participation in the life of God”(Catechism #1997). Grace is also that tugging of your heart to become more like Jesus. To love more, to forgive more, to seek forgiveness of your sins and to conform your heart to the Lord’s heart. It is supernatural because no one can do this without the grace of God.  

We share the grace of God with others when we give His love away, just as freely and undeservedly as He loves us. When we are living in the grace of God, we can’t help but share it with others. It can’t be contained. Many years ago, I knew a priest whose presence was joyful, kind, forgiving, and powerful. I watched people blossom and grow in faith around him, like flowers nourished by the rain and the sun. I was one of them. I used to think that he chose people to befriend because he saw something special in us, but now I know I had things backwards. We began to feel and behave differently because he treated us as if we were special. We were transformed by how he saw us. That’s how grace works among us.  

We are transformed by how Christ sees us. To Him, we’re His beautiful child. No matter how broken we feel, no matter what our sins might be, no matter how many times we’ve tried before and failed—in His eyes, we’re more precious than gold. Under His gaze, our wounds are healed, our sins forgiven, our hope restored. Grace isn’t some magical pixie dust. Like the Catechism says, it’s participating in the very life of God. It’s undeserved intimacy in the life of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Grace is what gives us supernatural life. Without it any hope for heaven is lost. When we confess our sins and receive Holy Communion, the grace that we receive is the life of God pulling us to His heart and giving us the strength and the will to lead others to Him as well. Like the priest I knew, a grace-filled life radiates love and encouragement, joy and acceptance. People will want what you have and will want to know how your life was transformed. Grace leads people to know God. What better way to spend your days here on earth than bringing other souls along on the road to heaven?

“Have you seen with the eyes of your soul how He looks at you with love?”

—-St. Teresa of Calcutta.


The first thing you notice is the smell. Like wet leaves on a forest floor. It’s damp and cool and the only light comes from the string of weak electric bulbs strung along the passageway. Because we had arranged a private tour, we were able to linger here in the catacombs beneath the streets of Rome. Our tour guide, a young nun, led us into tunnels and rooms not often seen by the public. She pointed out frescoes showing Jesus, the Apostles, and some of the earliest Saints of the Church. I especially liked the graffiti left by these hidden Christians who used the catacombs as both burial tombs and worship spaces. Most of the scratched words are prayers for a loved one who has died. Some were just names or single words. A few frescoes showed people in prayer and receiving Holy Communion. Here in this musty and dark place, hidden from pagan eyes, our ancestors in faith celebrated Mass, went to confession, were baptized and married, anointed and laid to rest. For many of them, their Christian faith was a death sentence and so these dark, quiet tunnels were a safe place to proclaim Christ, to come together as a family of faith. It’s a sacred place.  

Sitting there I remembered where we’d been just the week before. That place, too was heavy with history and memory. Ten miles outside Munich is Dachau, the first of the Nazi death camps. Low brick buildings, gravel walkways and that hateful iron sign at the entrance, “Arbeit Macht Frei”(Work make you free). The work of Dachau was hate and the freedom found there came on April 29, 1945 when American troops arrived and liberated the prisoners who were still alive there. Almost 32,000 died at Dachau in the 12 years it existed. Most were Jews, but many others were political prisoners, Catholic priests, immigrants, gays and the disabled. The Nazis carried out horrible “experiments” on prisoners here. It’s like walking through an abandoned corner of hell. But here, too are glimpses of the souls who had lived here. A small Star of David scratched into a barracks wall. A tiny brown shoe in a pile of hundreds of adult shoes. The name “Helga” in the collar of a prison shift. So much loss. The quiet here cries out for justice. This place, too, is sacred. 

Places like these peel away everything that isn’t eternal. They aren’t easy places to experience, but “easy” and “eternal” are rarely the same thing. Like the catacombs, a death camp forces you to answer the big questions: What do you believe? What is true? What are you willing to die for? These timeless questions require silence in order to be heard. You can’t hear eternity in a world full of noise. Jesus knew that. He retreated to quiet places in order to pray and hear the voice of the Father. Our daily lives are crammed with noise and distraction. We become starved for spiritual nourishment. Even many of our own worship experiences are filled with noise and light shows. We can’t tolerate silence. Yet God speaks to us in our quietude, not the in the earthquake, nor the fire, nor the mighty wind, but in a gentle whisper (I Kings 19:2). A whisper that speaks to us of the faith of our ancestors in the catacombs who risked their lives for their love of Christ. A whisper that speaks to us of justice and our calling to love and serve others in a world broken by sin and hate.  

These days in the streets of Rome and Munich, Calais and Paris, thousands of people have come seeking a better life. They have left their homes and loved ones and risked everything out of hope. What will be our response to them? We ourselves know what persecution and hate can do. We’ve seen that already in our history. Before we protest, before we build fences and pass laws, let’s go to a quiet place and listen for that whisper of God. Our hearts will never find peace in the noise of politics and rhetoric, of CNN and Fox News, or in partisan debates. As Christians, we follow the One Who is before all things and in Whom all things hold together (Colossians 1:17). He and He alone can lead us to the answer, if we only sit quietly and ask Him.

“Silence makes us whole if we let it. Silence helps draw together the scattered and dissipated energies of a fragmented existence.” —–Thomas Merton

The Hope of His Church

It’s been a rough few years to be an American Catholic. If by “rough” you mean what’s been covered in the media. We’ve endured the sexual abuse scandals and we’re still healing from them. Parishes and Catholic schools, especially in the north, have been forced to close or consolidate. Our own federal government is attempting to force our Church to pay for abortions and artificial birth control—both of which violate our teachings and beliefs. Some women want to be ordained as priests. The LGBT community, is outspoken (and sometimes violent) in their protests against our beliefs on family life. Many high-profile American Catholics (think Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi or Madonna) are strong supporters of abortion even though that goes against centuries of Church teaching. There’s a growing division in our country between liberal Catholics and conservative Catholics, much like the red state/blue state division in our political lives.

Thankfully there’s so much more to the Catholic Church than what’s reported in the mainstream media. And our Church is much, much larger than just the United States. Despite the media’s consistent doom-and-gloom drumbeat reporting on the declining state of the Church, reality proves She’s alive and well. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who reads and believes Holy Scripture: “…the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). The number of Catholics in the world continues to grow. In Africa the growth rate is amazing: an increase of 6000% in the last century. The number of seminaries and priests in Africa has blossomed to keep up. In Asia, the number of Catholics has doubled in the last century. While the number of priests worldwide declined from 1970 to 2000, that number is now steadily on the rise. If there’s a real vocations story in the Catholic Church it’s not a story of decline, but of recovery. Here in the Archdiocese of Atlanta we have 34 men studying for the priesthood in our part of north Georgia. Religious communities and convents are also experiencing greater numbers of interested men and women. Here in the South, most Catholics have heard of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia or as they’re better known, “the Nashville Dominicans.”  These women teach in parochial schools and wear traditional habits. There are now more than 300 of them with 27 women joining just last year. Their average age is 36, which is quite young. So what’s going on in the developing world and in places like Atlanta and Nashville? What’s attracting more and more people to fully live their Catholic faith with such joy and commitment?

Some people attribute it to the lasting effects of the papacy of St. John Paul II—his charisma, his travels, and the establishment of World Youth Day gatherings like the one we just witnessed in Brazil. His legacy has certainly played a part in attracting and keeping young people excited about their faith. But there’s more to it. Decades of poor or non-existent catchesis are beginning to be replaced with programs geared towards parish youth, like LifeTeen and the Steubenville conferences and retreats. Some parishes have developed their own unique programs as well, but all these have some common threads which draw new people to the Church and keep people active in their Catholic faith:

1) Parish life is centered on the Sacraments and Adoration. You don’t need fancy multi-media Masses and rock music. You DO need liturgies celebrated with reverence and dignity. You need Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. You need pastors and catechists willing to teach the truth of our faith without compromise. If our young people know the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist they’ll be joyful, lifelong Catholics.

2) Confession is offered before Mass and at several other times during the week, not just on Saturday afternoons. Penance is the love, mercy and forgiveness of God and needs to be available when folks can come and not just at a time which may be convenient for the priest. We love our priests, but we need more of them to think “inside the box” in this case.

3) Priests live their vocations joyfully and are great examples of answering God’s call of love and service. They talk to young people about their vocations and invite them to consider a religious vocation.

4) Our Christian calling extends beyond the walls of our parish church. Look at your parish ministries. How many of them exist mainly to serve the parish? How many of them reach out to serve your community? The poor, the immigrant, the imprisoned, the families struggling to make ends meet, the unwed expectant mom who might be thinking about an abortion: these are our neighbors whom Jesus calls us to love and to serve.

If we center our parish life on the Sacraments, on service, and on sacrifice, we won’t be able to build enough new schools, new churches and new seminaries fast enough to keep up. What a wonderful set of “problems” to have!

“…resplendent in faith, hope, and charity [we] manifest Christ to others.”

—-St. John Paul II