Sweet as Cana Wine

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In Cana of Galilee there is a small Catholic Church named after its village – Kafr Kana (Hebrew: Village of Cana). A large wedding took place here 2,000 years ago that is remembered every day in this small town with the population of Arab Christians and Muslims. That wedding is recorded in John 2:1-11. Those invited to the Wedding were Jesus and His disciple, and the mother of Jesus was there as well.

Today, the Church of Cana is an active community of families that have been worshipping at this Church for many generations. They are proud to tell visitors about their love for Christ and His mother, Mary.

The Church is built over the ancient ruins of the “wedding house” we read about in the Gospel of John. Pilgrim groups are welcome to pray in the church and couples who have received the Sacrament of Matrimony are so happy to be able to renew their wedding vows. Imagine, renewing your wedding vows with your spouse in the very place where Jesus blessed the young couple with His Presence, and provided the “good wine” for their celebration!

Tom and I have lead numerous pilgrim groups to the Holy Land and arranged for the couples in our groups to have this opportunity to renew their vows to one another in this holy place. We also join the pilgrims, and each time it is a moment of grace as we remember the very first day we looked into each other’s eyes and committed ourselves to one another in marriage. Parishioners also offer us “Cana Wine” – a sweet wine to celebrate!

Thirty six years ago, on November 25th, we entered the Sacrament of Matrimony with Christ. We were married the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend. We often comment on how we thank God for finding each other.

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With Bishop Oscar Cantu after renewing our marriage vows.

The Sacrament of Marriage is so important that the Church says that the love of the husband and wife for each other should reflect the love that Christ has for His Church.

Marriage is God’s gift to us, and it is our primary vocation which must be protected. Outside of our salvation, we have no greater task than to protect our marriage, which may be God’s means to heal us and others on the way to eternal life.

Each is responsible for the salvation of the other; we can help each other get to Heaven.

It is especially in our marriage that we live out the two greatest Commandments as we read in Mark 12:28-31:

One of the scribes, when he came forward and heard them disputing and saw how well he had answered them, asked him, “Which is the first of all the commandments?” Jesus replied, “The first is this: ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

If we do not love God above everything else, we will never reach our potential in loving our spouse or our children. That is by God’s design. If you are faithful to God, you will be faithful to each other and grow spiritually!

What do Catholic church buildings teach us?

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I’ve heard so many stories from Catholic converts about how they felt mysteriously drawn to Catholic church buildings, even before they knew what everything inside the buildings meant. Catholic church buildings are markedly different from other places of worship…but what does it all mean?

When I started learning the remarkable symbolism behind Catholic churches and their elements inside, I felt like I was discovering an entirely new (yet ancient) world!  Allow me to share just a taste of this with you.

“Visible churches are not simply gathering places but signify and make visible the Church living in this place, the dwelling of God with men reconciled and united in Christ… In this ‘house of God’ the truth and the harmony of the signs that make it up should show Christ to be present and active in this place.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, pp. 1180-81)

Beginning a Journey…

As you enter most Catholic churches, you’ll step into a “foyer” area, or a large front porch. This is called the narthex, where we transition from the outside world into the House of God. It is where liturgical processions begin. Because of its transitory nature, the narthex is also known as the galilee; reminding us of Christ’s journey to the Cross, from Israel’s Galilee area into Jerusalem.

 …To the Water, To the Ship…

As we enter the church, we dip our fingers into holy water fonts, making the Sign of the Cross over ourselves to remind us of our Baptism. Some churches have a separate baptistry area, with a large, octagonal baptismal font. Its eight sides refer to Christ’s resurrection on the eighth day (Sunday).

We often think of the next area – where people sit – as the “congregation,” or even the sanctuary.  However, the proper name is the nave, the Latin word for “ship” (think of “navy” / “naval”).  Why a ship?  The Church is the “ark of salvation,” the ship that carries us to Heaven over the stormy seas of life.  Our Pilgrim Center of Hope logo is a ship for this very reason.

Up to Jerusalem

During Mass, we see the liturgical ministers process up to the front of the building, to a place many might refer to as the “stage” or the “altar”.  This area is actually the sanctuary, from the Latin for “holy place”.  The sanctuary area is raised higher than the nave to signify…

  • The head of Christ (the nave signifies His Body, the people)
  • Mount Zion – where King David’s fortress was located, and also the location of the Upper Room where Jesus celebrated the Last Supper (instituting the Holy Eucharist)
  • Jerusalem – the location of the Jewish Temple, and of Christ’s crucifixion
  • Heaven – the “New Jerusalem” where we will celebrate the Wedding Feast of the Lamb (Christ) forever

To receive Holy Communion, we always process toward the sanctuary because it reminds that we are pilgrims journeying toward Heaven.

TabernacleThe Old and the New

In the sanctuary, we see our Jewish roots married to our Christian identity.

  • TabernacleTabernacle means “tent”.  The first Jewish Tabernacle was built by the Israelites after they were freed from slavery, as God’s dwelling place among them. Our Tabernacle is an ornate “box” commonly made of precious metals, containing the Body of Christ (bread consecrated during Mass that Catholics believe becomes the real Body of Jesus Christ).
  • Sanctuary Lamp – The (often red) candle which, when lit, indicates God’s presence in the Tabernacle.  The ancient Jewish Sanctuary also contained a sanctuary lamp. It was kept just outside the Holy of Holies, the place where God dwelt.
  • Altar – The altar is no ordinary table.  Ancient Jews slaughtered an unblemished lamb on an altar as sacrifice for their sins.  Jesus came to become the Lamb of God, who was slaughtered as a sacrifice for all sins.  Today, the altar is where we offer bread and wine that become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, who is the Lamb of God.  At the altar, time and space are no barrier; by the Holy Spirit’s power, we are present at Jesus’ Crucifixion.
  • Presider’s Chair – Whereas the altar represents Christ’s priesthood, the chair represents his kingship.  In ancient writings, a seated figure was a figure of authority.  The presider’s chair is where the priest or bishop who is celebrating the Mass, sits.
  • Ambo – Represents Christ as prophet. This “podium” is where God’s word is proclaimed to the people.  It may jut out from the sanctuary into the nave, symbolizing the prophet going out to the people with God’s word.
  • Crucifix – Cross with the body of the suffering Christ. During Mass, a crucifix must be present.  It reminds us to unite ourselves to Christ’s sufferings*, and points to the reality of what is taking place on the altar during Mass.

Many modern churches lack an altar rail around the sanctuary.  This is a beautiful “table-like” rail designed as an extension of the altar.  At the altar rail, people would receive Holy Communion.  Thus, the altar rail is not designed as a mere barrier around the sanctuary; it is a table where the Banquet of the Lord is given to the people.

Earth and Heaven

Catholic churches’ beauty and art are essential to Catholic worship.  Statues, paintings, mosaics, and stained glass of the saints, angels, and Biblical scenes remind us of the family we have which spans history – past, present, future – and space – across the globe, in Purgatory, and in Heaven.  Catholic Mass is where “Earth and Heaven kiss”.  The ornamentation, marble, precious metals, jewels, etc., communicate this supernatural reality.

God does not need our beautiful things.  Yet, from the beginning of Judeo-Christian history, God has asked us to make sacrifices and create beautiful religious articles / structures.  Why?  Our physical, human nature needs physical reminders of what cannot be known by our senses.

This is all just the “tip of the iceberg”!  I encourage you to seek out resources and continue learning.  Here are a few:

* See 1 Peter 2:21-24, 1 Corinthians 2:2, Romans 6:3-5, and Colossians 1:24.

Casting Your Ballot

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One can never find all of life in life. Being born, growing up, obtaining an education, finding a job, marrying, raising a family, eating, drinking, playing a sport, enjoying a hobby; these are all wonderful facets of our temporary pilgrimage on Earth. But none of them have the capacity to provide LIFE as God created and intended it.

The reason is God has rigged this thing we call “life”. Rigged it so that the best life has to offer is never big enough to fill the vacuum in our souls. Rigged it so that we can never be fully satisfied by anything less than the presence of God.

Within every one of us is an innate, inextinguishable yearning. If we do not allow the cry of our soul to be answered by God, we will begin dialing other numbers. The appeal for some confused souls to join ISIS, a terrorist movement, or to be connected to a gang, are, I believe, an attempt to fill this void.

But none of those numbers can deliver what they offer. Saint Augustine expressed, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Elsewhere he writes, “Sin is energy in the wrong channel.”

Since I became Catholic, just a little over a year ago, I have spent more time in prayer than I ever had before. This, enhanced with attending Mass regularly, has deepened my awareness of my dependence on God. We now have an ongoing conversation – all the time and about everything. This simple act of making Him the center of my life is what gives me the greatest feeling of wholeness.

Indeed, this internal thirst will either drive us deeper into the arms of God or those of His rival. The choice is ours.

“Imitators of Us and the Lord”

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Martyrs and Saint Virgins. Lucas Signorelli (1499-1502)

Martyrs and Saint Virgins. Lucas Signorelli (1499-1502)

If someone asked you today, “What is the most important thing in your life,” what would you say? There are lots of things important to all of us, but what is most important? Take a moment to think about that. It is easy to be distracted by our busy routines and the pressures to fulfill our responsibilities and plan for our future. However, what is our purpose for being on this earth? Are we here by accident or are we part of God’s plan? If God has a plan for us, what is it?

In today’s Gospel, the religious leaders tested Jesus. They wanted to know if he knew God’s plan. Jesus gives them the answer; “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as your self. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” We could say that all of God’s revelation depends on these two commandments. If no one observed these two commandments, God’s divine revelation would cease to have meaning. God’s Word has reached us because others have believed and lived it, even at the shedding of their own blood.

In the second reading from Paul to the Thessalonians, he says, “And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, receiving the Word in great affliction, with joy from the Holy Spirit, so that you became a model for all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.” Even though it was a hardship for them to receive the Word of God, the Thessalonians, “with joy from the Holy Spirit,” became models for other believers, which made it easier for Paul to preach. If there are no witnesses, preaching has little effect.

In October 2008, we were in Thessalonica with a group of pilgrims. We were also in Philippi where Paul was imprisoned and in Ephesus, Corinth, and other places where the Roman ruins consisted of, among other things, amphitheaters where Christians were martyred for the faith. Their faith was more important to them than their lives.

Now, what about us? Is it “in (God) that we live and move and have our being” as Paul says in Acts 17:28? Have we found our purpose in Him?

He has not given us the commandments as a means to dominate us, but as a means to guide us. And because He knows us and the strength of our nature He has made them commandments, not suggestions. We may think we know what is best for us, but if God is not in the picture we are only deceiving ourselves. At some point we all must surrender to the love of God. We must make a firm decision to follow Jesus as our Lord and to be faithful to what he has revealed to us through the Scriptures and the Church.

Our temptation is to say, “Well then, what is the minimum I must do?” Of course that would be a mistake. If we are only interested in doing the minimum, we soon perceive the minimum only as an obligation and a burden which becomes too difficult to fulfill.

God has a wonderful plan for humanity in general and each of us individually, but He must be the most important part of that plan. The only way we will reach our potential for happiness is by drawing closer and closer to God who is the source of all love and all that is good. For this reason He has given us the Church and the sacraments as a source of grace. We have everything we need to become a saint, but it depends upon our desire, our free will.

Do you want to be a saint? Of course we all want to go to heaven, but do you want to be a saint now? God’s plan is that we be saints now; that we cooperate with His grace and live our lives in union with Him for our own sake and the good of the Church. It is in our decision to struggle to do the “Will of God” and our effort to be faithful that we are purified and become witnesses of what we believe. It is the will of God that we be purified now instead of after our death. The unfolding of the Kingdom of God depends on the sanctity of the baptized. St Therese, the Little Flower, once said, “The creator of the universe awaits the prayer of a poor little soul to save other souls.” It is not only our prayers that Our Lord needs, but also our faithfulness, our witnesses and our charity.

When something is important to us we invest in it. If you want to be a good student, you will study hard. if you want to be a good athlete, you will practice hard. How much more should be our concerned about being a good Christian, which has eternal consequences for our selves and the people we love, and the whole world.

To be a good Christian requires us to enter into a personal relationship with Our Heavenly Father by making a commitment to daily prayer, reading the Scriptures, living the sacramental life, continuing to be formed in the faith, and participating in our faith community by being good stewards of what we have received.

This relationship with God should influence every important decision we make. And this is not an obligation or a burden, but the proven path to real happiness, now and forever. God has a great plan and we all are part of that plan.

Who Would Want to Live in a Ghetto?

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Alley. Jacek Yerka (2004)

Here at the Pilgrim Center of Hope, I do a number of things, including screening telephone calls for our weekly show, Catholicism Live!. (That means if you called and weren’t given time to talk about your question or comment, you can blame me. Please send all hate mail to media@pilgrimcenteroffakeaddress.com)

Last week, we had a show about pornography, it’s toxicity, and tools for attaining freedom if you are one of the many men and women trapped in the grip of porn addiction.

The promo for this episode got thirteen shares on Facebook. Thirteen! But you know who didn’t share the promo?

The one lady who called in during the show.

I know this because I talked with her for a few minutes, and she vented her spleen about just how terrible it was that we were trying to educate the public about pornography and help for those mired in addiction.

Couldn’t we talk about something else?, she wanted to know.
There’s so much beauty in the faith and rich history of the Church, it would be better to tell others about those things, she asserted.
Do we really think someone who views pornography would listen anyway?, she posed.
And what if a child was listening and, you know, getting ideas!
, she fretted.

Maybe she has that last point; we could have put a disclaimer. But it was clear from the conversation that she just thought the subject was disgusting and didn’t want to be made uncomfortable. Nevermind mercy, forget hope – she just didn’t want to deal with the ‘ew’ factor!

Well, let me tell you: all sin is ugly. All sin. And there will always be particular kinds of sins that bother us more than others, often for good reasons. There is wisdom in being disturbed. But repugnance is no reason to draw up the Church’s lifeboats while casting an eye-roll.

There was one other comment this woman made that I found particularly revealing: she complained that our program had replaced the EWTN program on the Crusades. That, she asserted, is the kind of thing people should be learning about. We need to be able to defend our faith against the secular media, after all, and misinformation about the Crusades is always being used against the Church. In other words, why worry about sinners who are already lost? We need to defend ourselves!

No, people. This is exactly the wrong attitude, the un-Christlike attitude, and its ironic to worry about being misunderstood while advocating ignorance of others who need our help. I bring this up not because this woman has kept me up at night, but because I’m reminded of this episode as I read some of the feedback on the bishops’ recent document, Relatio post disceptationem, the result of a week of discussion at the ongoing Synod on the Family in Rome.

Much ink has been spilt over the emphasis on what’s called the “law of gradualness” – a long established, common sense rule of pastoral theology which encourages pastors to keep in mind that people grow into spiritual life gradually, rather than all at once.

The bishops have voiced a desire to ponder whether we have failed to create a welcoming atmosphere in the Church for people in “irregular unions” (homosexuals, divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, cohabitating couples), and whether keeping the “law of gradualness” in mind would allow Church leaders to seek out, walk beside, and love mercifully such people even while they are not living in full communion with the Church.

Here is one beautiful section of the document:

21. The Gospel of the family, while it shines in the witness of many families who live coherently their fidelity to the sacrament, with their mature fruits of authentic daily sanctity, must also nurture those seeds that are yet to mature, and must care for those trees that have dried up and wish not to be neglected.

22. In this respect, a new dimension of today’s family pastoral consists of accepting the reality of civil marriage and also cohabitation, taking into account the due differences. Indeed, when a union reaches a notable level of stability through a public bond, is characterized by deep affection, responsibility with regard to offspring, and capacity to withstand tests, it may be seen as a germ to be accompanied in development towards the sacrament of marriage. Very often, however, cohabitation is established not with a view to a possible future marriage, but rather without any intention of establishing an institutionally-recognized relationship.

23. Imitating Jesus’ merciful gaze, the Church must accompany her most fragile sons and daughters, marked by wounded and lost love, with attention and care, restoring trust and hope to them like the light of a beacon in a port, or a torch carried among the people to light the way for those who are lost or find themselves in the midst of the storm.

25. …The Church has to carry this out with the tenderness of a mother and the clarity of a teacher (cf. Eph 4,15), in fidelity to the merciful kenosi of Christ. The truth is incarnated in human fragility not to condemn it, but to cure it.

Many Catholics in the public sphere have praised this unified shift in tone from the bishops. While there are challenges and open questions left to be carefully contemplated (as always), it is clearly addressing issues with due consideration, that have been seen as needing this kind of attention for a long time.

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Refreshment at the city’s fountain of Taorimina. Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller (1846)

But not all are happy with the document. Many Catholics, in fact, are downright panicky. Consider these comments gleaned from Facebook:

“The truth is that if it’s approval people want, there are many other better places to find it. The Church’s role should simply be to proclaim the truth. Those who have ears will hear and God will build His Church.”

“Having just attended a retreat on the family, and restoring family life, I got a very clear perspective on the family, and how broken the family is in our society, and how fundamental the family is to our society. This synod, if it persists in the homosexual context, will completely break what the family is.”

“Jesus called a spade a spade way more than anybody else in the Bible. The results of the questionnaire sent out last year should have the Fathers of the Church scared for their eternal lives having allowed so many people to not only fall into but also to embrace grave sin. Their response: to focus on the positive aspects of the sinful choices Catholics have embraced.”

Do you see the same defensive irony in these comments as the lady who called into last week’s show? On the one hand, the Kingdom of God deserves to flourish, to have its truth understood and its rich splendor appreciated; and on the other hand, the Kingdom of God is as poor as a ghetto, so if the doors were opened, the roof would likely come tumbling down.

One of these views is correct, and here’s a hint: who would want to live in a ghetto?

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Rainbow, New York City. John French Sloan (1912)

The Crisis of the Family

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“Flight Into Egypt” by Giotto di Bondone, c. 1311

On October 5, 2014 Pope Francis called for a Synod on the Family in Rome. Cardinal Stanisław Ryłko, President of the Pontifical Council of the Laity, in issuing a statement for the Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Family, said “Today more than ever, we need witnesses who live out the Gospel of the family to the fullest and with joy, and who show the world that it is a beautiful and fascinating way of life, a source of happiness for spouses and children.” These witnesses are needed, he says, even if the voice of the Church is “often contested, rejected and even ridiculed by the media.”
The family is the most basic and most important unit in society everywhere in the world. Wherever there are strong, secure and healthy families, there are strong, secure and healthy societies.

However, families have been greatly weakened everywhere in the Western world because of the growing influence of secularism. When people are more influenced by the world and what it has to offer than by faith in God and what He has revealed to us through the Scriptures and the Church, we have a crisis.

Secularism has led to individualism and the selfishness that leads to (among other things) divorce, uncontrolled passions, greed, and the loss of concern for the good of the other.

St. John Paul II said the root cause of the “culture of death” is preoccupation with efficiency, which is a product of secularism. We want what we want right now, even at the expense of our own good and the good of others.

The family is meant to be an environment where parents and children grow in love with each other and with God. For this to happen there must be an emphasis on prayer and worship. Spouses should pray with each other every day and with their children. It gives children a great sense of security to know their parents love each other and that they pray together.

Also necessary is the discipline which is a dimension of love. Even as parents must discipline their own lives – “You must deny your selves, take up your cross and follow me” – they must also provide the discipline for their children that will prepare them to live a life close to God, so they will discover their true dignity and the great plan that the Lord has for them.

When we have healthy, faithful families, we will have an increase in priestly and religious vocations needed for the life of the Church.

Obedience, Humility, Love – the Way of Happiness

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St. John the Baptist, Bernardo Strozzi, 1620. “He must increase; I must decrease.” (John 3:30)

To set the stage for this first reading, the prophet Ezekiel is addressing the special relationship that the Chosen People have with God. When they, as a people, are faithful to God, they experience the blessings of God together. However, when they, as a people, are unfaithful, they experience the wrath of God together. Nevertheless, if a son turns away from the evil ways of his father he shall not suffer the consequence of the father. Ezekiel is pointing out that individuals who turn to God will receive His mercy and blessings, no matter what they or their ancestors have done. Some believed God was unfair because He didn’t apply His punishment according to their expectations.

What about us? Do we believe God is fair? There are many people who refuse to believe in God because He doesn’t meet their expectations. They say, “If God is real, why does He allow so much suffering?” “Why doesn’t He answer my prayer?” Perhaps they are looking for an excuse not to believe. On the other hand, there is overwhelming evidence of the existence of God for those who want to believe. How could the order of the universe and all that exists be an accident; how could life begin when there was no life? For me some, of the most convincing evidence is the lives of the saints and the miracles God worked through them. Even more important than that, their lives are a testimony of what it means to live in a personal, intimate relationship with God and experience great joy, peace, and hope, even in the most difficult circumstances.

In the second reading Paul tells us how we can share in the joy of the saints. The Word of God, Jesus Christ, has made it possible by humbling himself, coming to us in human likeness and being obedient, even to the point of death out of love for us. For our part, Paul says, we must, “Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vain glory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but also for those of others.”
The saints have reached their potential for happiness in this life and for all eternity because of obedience and humility in the same manner as Christ. The same will be true for us. It isn’t the easy road; we can only travel it with the help of God’s grace. In reality, anyone can travel this road if we chose humility and obedience to what God has revealed to us through the Scriptures and the Church.

Perhaps a good way to prepare our hearts is to pray a portion of the litany of humility written by Rafael Cardinal Merry del Val:

O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, hear me.
From the desire of being honored, deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being praised, deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being preferred to others, deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being humiliated, deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being ridiculed, deliver me, Jesus

That others may be esteemed more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be praised and I unnoticed, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

Perhaps this emphasis on humility seems extreme, but this prayer has been prayed by many holy people. It is what Jesus is talking about when he says we must deny our selves, take up our cross and follow him; that we must lose our life for the sake of the Gospel. To lose our life in this fashion is to gain happiness now and for all eternity.

In the Gospel we see the fairness of God. In the beginning, the one son says no to his father but later changed his mind and obeyed. The other son said yes to his father, but then disobeyed. The comparison of the two sons is another parable for the kingdom of God. Even if in the beginning we made bad choices, the Kingdom of God will be open to us if we turn back to God with a desire to do His will – no matter what we have done. First we must have the humility to accept the forgiveness of God through the sacrament of confession and then have the desire to be faithful to Him. At some point, we all must surrender our lives to Him. Is Jesus the Lord of your life? Do you want him to be the Lord of your Life?

In every age, including the present, there has been and continues to be stories of profound conversions. These testimonies are for our benefit so that we also will take God seriously and surrender our lives to Him. The sooner we begin ordering our lives to God, the sooner we will begin to reach our potential for happiness and peace.

Maybe some of you remember the name Lola Falana. She was a Las Vegas show girl in the 70’s and was a friend of Sammy Davis, Jr. She was a speaker at a Marian Conference here in San Antonio almost 25 years ago. She said that a debilitating illness brought her to her knees and that in her prayer she experienced the presence of the Lord. Later, she had heard that Our Lady had been appearing to some children, and so she turned to her in pray and received some relief from her illness. She had a profound conversion experience and gave her life totally to God. During her testimony, she said she now accepts all suffering and difficulties that come her way because she wants to suffer with Christ now, so that when she dies she will not have to go to purgatory; she wants to experience her purgatory now.

Suffering is often a wasted resource. We all are going to suffer from one thing or another, but if our suffering causes us bitterness or resentment, it is wasted. If, however, we offer our sufferings as a prayer in union with the sufferings of Christ, they become redemptive.

Sometimes we wait until we realize we need God’s help before we surrender our lives to Him. It doesn’t have to be that way. It shouldn’t be that way. He is waiting for all of us to turn to Him right now. Real life doesn’t begin until we begin the process of conversion.

Even if we have said “No” to God by living our life for our self, as soon as we say “Yes” we will begin to receive the graces we need from God. We do this by a commitment to daily prayer, living the sacramental life, reading the Scriptures, by continuing to be formed in our faith and by serving God and neighbor through our faith community.

Our Lord has a great plan for us that we can only discover by denying our self, taking up our cross and following him. The happiest people on this earth are those who are faithful disciples of Our Lord.

ABC’s of Catholic Living – Simple outline for a faithful home

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One of the most common questions we encounter in evangelization work is: “How can I bring up my children Catholic?” or “How can we strengthen our family’s faith?”

When my husband and I were married, we were determined to establish a Catholic household — a household in which the Catholic faith is seamlessly integrated into daily life. I’ve attempted to capture some of our guiding principles in this alphabetical list. What are your suggestions?

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“The Holy Family with the Infant St. John” by Bartolome Esteban Murillo

ADORATION – Adore God, individually and together.
We often ask God for favors, and forget to adore. “To adore God is to acknowledge him as God, as the Creator and Savior, the Lord and Master of everything that exists, as infinite and merciful Love.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church #2096) Take time to lift your mind and heart to God, without asking anything. When you take this time, your children will notice! I remember often walking in on my mom during her prayer. Consider taking a trip to a local parish for Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Whatever you do, develop your relationship with God as an individual and as a family.

BIBLE – Incorporate the Bible into your home life.
Many adults have told me that they remember a large Bible in their grandparents’ home that was displayed in a place of honor…but never seemed to be read! Do keep your family Bible in a central location, but make sure to read from it. This is easier when you develop a habit and have time set aside to do so. My husband and I established a time to read Scripture together when we come home from work, before preparing dinner.

COLORS – Use liturgical colors to decorate.
This is a fun and easy way to remain united with the Church around the world. Is today a martyr’s day? Wear red! I like to use green place mats on our dining room table during Ordinary Time. These are simple things, but they are visible ways to bridge our time in church with our time at home. See the calendar with liturgical colors at the U.S. Bishops’ website.

DINE TOGETHER – Make meal time family time.
Sharing a meal together means sitting down at the table together, face-to-face. This helps naturally develop relationships among family members. Research has shown that your family will reap many benefits.

EXAMINATION OF CONSCIENCE – Encourage family members to regularly examine their conscience.
Generally, we do so in silence for a few minutes, at the beginning of Night Prayer before bedtime. My husband will simply prompt, “Let’s pause for an examination of conscience.” Click here for one of my preferred examination methods.

FEAST DAYS – Celebrate feast days.
For example, on one of the apostles’ feast days we might make a special meal (pot roast with wine). You could also consider using special place settings for meals, having a dessert, or playing a game together.

GRACE – Say ‘grace’ before meals.
Speaking of meals, always pray before your meal! We like to thank God for our food and all involved in preparing it (farmers, truck drivers, grocery store workers, etc.). We ask Him to help us remain grateful for what we have been given, and to help us to share our resources with others. Praying before meals helps cultivate a spirit of thankfulness in each family member.

HOLY FATHER – Love and pray for the Pope.
Keeping a picture of the Pope in your home as a reminder of his spiritual leadership, as well as a reminder to pray for him. Keeping a photo of the Pope in your home can also help educate children about your family’s unity with all Catholics under the “shepherding” of the Holy Father.

IMAGES / ICONS – Have sacred images or icons in your home.
We enjoy having Eastern Christian icons in our home, especially ones that have particular meaning to us: The Last Supper, the Wedding at Cana, the Holy Family, etc. Each one invites us to contemplate the subject matter. Christian / Catholic artwork in your home will help remind family members that our faith is important to us, and that it is beautiful!

JUSTICE – Discern how your family should live Catholic social teachings.
How much does your family know about the Church’s social teachings? My husband and I try to challenge ourselves to attend occasional presentations on topics like immigration, war, homelessness, etc. When we clean out our closets, we donate to St. Vincent de Paul instead of selling those items. We also contribute to charities that assist individuals in difficult situations. What can your family do? There are so many options, you can find a way that suits your family. Look into ministry or charity programs / activities in your area. Let prayer guide your decisions.

KNOWLEDGE – Grow in knowledge of Church teachings.
Our Faith has always encouraged individuals who seek to understand. Encourage one another to ask questions about Church teaching. Keep reference books in your home, such as the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the YOUCat (youth catechism), subject-specific books, etc. Attend presentations together at your parish or diocese. Watch or listen to Catholic programming. One of the greatest lessons you can teach your children is having the humility to say, “I don’t know the answer. Let’s find out together.”

LOVE – Foster a loving environment in your home.
Learn to communicate lovingly with one another.  If you need help, don’t be ashamed to seek out resources or counseling; communicating well with your family is your calling from God! Families reflect God (Love) to the world.

MASS – Attend Mass Together.
If it’s possible for your entire family to attend Mass together, do so. Mass is the most important ‘moment’ in our lives. Try to prepare by reading the Mass readings beforehand, so you can listen to them more prayerfully during Mass. Ask each other, “What struck you about the homily?” Stay a few minutes after Mass to thank God for this special time with him.

NATURE – Practice good stewardship of nature.
God has entrusted Creation to us. We need to practice good stewardship habits, like reducing our food / water waste, re-using materials, and recycling whatever we can.

OBEDIENCE – Practice healthy and holy obedience.
This is a doozie! Obedience is a ‘bad word’ in modern society, but in Scripture and our faith Tradition it’s a healthy virtue. Obedience is not to be mistaken for condoning abuse of power. Rather, it means that each family member has a specific role, and we maintain peace in our homes by honoring the natural structure of those roles. Family members with the most authority are responsible for loving as Christ loves. See a reflection on this by Father Chris Rengers, OFM.

PRAYER – Pray all ways. Pray always!
When and how can families pray together? Maybe we should ask: “When can we not pray together??” Use any opportunity to pray; all it takes is saying, “Can we take a moment to pray?” or, “Let’s offer this time (ex: stuck in traffic) as a prayer. Who can we pray for?” Learn the Guardian Angel prayer. Pray the three expressions of prayer: Vocal prayer, meditation, and contemplation.

QUIET – Build quiet times into your family life.
Not all noise is bad. In fact, some noises are very good! But generally speaking, our society tends toward “productivity” and if we’re always busy, we will miss God’s “still, small voice” whispering to us. Our Catholic faith has a long history of appreciating silence, so let’s keep it alive in our family life. I know of families with small children that designate a few hours on Sunday as “unplugged” time: no electronics! Family members are encouraged to read, pray, take a walk, etc.

RECONCILIATION – Schedule times to participate in the Sacrament of Reconciliation – and reconcile with one another at home.
Confession can be scary, but it’s important that we make it a part of our lives. Adults can teach youth about the wonders of this sacrament by making it a priority and a regular habit. Go to the church as a family. Encourage (but do not force) children to participate in this sacrament. Demonstrate God’s mercy at home: When husband and wife have a conflict, work to reconcile as soon as possible. Teach children to apologize. Don’t be afraid of apologizing to children when you’re out of line; modeling humility and love is crucial. “Parents have a grave responsibility to give good example to their children. By knowing how to acknowledge their own failings to their children, parents will be better able to guide and correct them.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2223)

SACRAMENTALS – Use sacramentals.
Sacramentals are small signs and instruments of grace, like a blessed Rosary, Holy Water, blessed Holy Medal, or Blessed Salt. My husband and I started a ritual in which we bless each other with Holy Water every morning before heading out the door, and every evening before bedtime. We also have many other sacramentals that help us remain close to our faith during prayer, in times of difficulty, or in everyday life.

TITHE – Give to the Church and charity before everything else.
Tithing is a Biblical practice based in ancient Jewish life that continues in Christian life. Traditionally, tithing is giving 10 percent of one’s income to God. This requires prayerful discernment for each family. For us, that 10 percent equals 1 percent to our Archbishop’s annual appeal, 5 percent to our parish, and 4 percent to other charitable causes. Tithing may seem challenging at first, but we have found it to be a freeing practice. It keeps us accountable to contributing to our community’s well-being, and reminds us of the proper ordering of our priorities.

UNION – Live as members of the Communion of Saints.
Keep pictures of the saints in your home. We have them all over; the refrigerator, living room, bedroom. They are family members, role models, and prayer intercessors for us. Read the lives of the Saints with your children, and talk about your favorite saints. Ask the saints for their prayers.

VIRGIN MARY – Practice devotion to Our Blessed Mother.
Jesus entrusted Mary to Saint John, the “beloved disciple.” She is the Mother of Christ and our spiritual mother. Have a special picture of Mary in your home. Teach children the Rosary prayers, and pray together. Perhaps they would like to learn the Angelus prayer, or the Salve Regina – like this little boy!

WHIMSY – Enjoy life!
Pope Francis and many of the saints have reminded us to live joyfully as Christ’s followers. Sing, dance, play, laugh, tell stories… enjoy the good things of life in moderation.

CRUCIFIX – Have a Crucifix in your home.
Saint Paul spoke on the importance of preaching Christ crucified, and Catholic tradition has long used the crucifix to remind us of God’s love. The crucifix is a powerful sacramental that, when honored and matched with a Christian life, can help our family fight temptation.

YES, LORD – Encourage each member of the family to live their vocation.
Introduce your children to priests, religious sisters, nuns, brothers, consecrated people, and other families. Share a meal with them. Help children understand that God calls each of us to a certain life; the life for which we’re best suited. During family prayer, ask the Holy Spirit to help each family member discover and “say yes” to this calling.

ZEAL – Demonstrate authentic enthusiasm for your faith.
Zeal is not “nice feelings” or “warm fuzzies” about being Catholic. It’s the fire that burns within us; the Holy Spirit’s work, that drives us to live as Catholics no matter what situation we find ourselves in. How can we live this in family life? Discuss what you appreciate most about our Faith, or what motivates you to do what’s right. When you make a decision, explain to children how our Catholic faith has affected your decision. Tell them why you are glad to be Catholic, even when you don’t “feel” excited. Children (and adults!) need to learn that our experience as Catholics will include times of strong emotions and other, more challenging times; but we maintain a zeal for faith thanks to our relationship with the Holy Spirit.

Mary’s Birthday

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“Let us celebrate with joy the birth of the Virgin Mary, of whom was born the Sun of Justice…. Her birth constitutes the hope and the light of salvation for the whole world… Her image is light for the whole Christian people” (From the Liturgy).

September 8th is a day the Church celebrates the birth of Mary, the Virgin Mother of God. It’s interesting to know that the Church celebrates three births in the Liturgical Calendar. I am sure you will immediately think of the birth of Jesus as one! The other two are: John the Baptist on June 24th and Mary’s on September 8th.

We would certainly understand the reason for celebrating the Birth of Jesus, the Christ, and John the Baptist served as a forerunner of Jesus, baptizing people as a sign of their repentance.

The Dictionary of Mary contains this entry on the birth of Mary:

“Her birth is ordained in particular toward her mission as Mother of the Savior. Her existence is indissolubly connected with that of Christ: it partakes of a unique plan of predestination and grace. God’s mysterious plan regarding the incarnation of the Word embraces also the Virgin who is His Mother. In this way, the Birth of Mary is inserted at the very heart of the History of Salvation.”

The origin of the celebration of Mary’s birth as a feast day in the Liturgical Calendar began in Palestine. Crusaders built a church over the house of Mary’s parents, Joachim and Ann, in Jerusalem, between 1131 and 1138. The church was consecrated and named after St. Ann.

The Church of St. Ann is the only Crusader church built in the 12th century that is intact and still used today as a place of worship and pilgrim destination. There are two levels. The lower level, or crypt, has parts of the original Church built in the Byzantine period over the home of the maternal grandparents of Jesus. Nearby a beautiful, colorful Icon of Mary’s birth can be seen.

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I have visited this Church during our pilgrimages to the Holy Land. It’s very simple with its massive, high stone walls. There is a sense of warmth and welcome when you walk in, knowing that this Church was built over the site of Mary’s birth.

To the left, candles burn by a white statue of St. Ann with Mary as a child.

MJ & St. Ann in JRS

Pilgrims will light candles asking the intercession of both Mary and her parents.Toward the front is Jesus in His Eucharistic Presence. Small wooden benches invite visitors to pray in silence.

As we think about Mary on her birthday – today or on any day – think about her simplicity and immense love for God. And think about her as the Mother of God, who longs for every person to experience her Son’s mercy and consolation.

“If anyone does not wish to have Mary Immaculate for his Mother, he will not have Christ for his Brother.” – Saint Maximilian Kolbe

 

Becoming Fully Human – a Sign of Contradiction

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“Presentation At the Temple” by Andrea Mantegna, c. 1455 “Behold this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign of contradiction (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34)

In today’s first reading we see that Jeremiah regrets his call to be a prophet because it has caused him so much anguish. And yet, when he decides he will no longer be the Lord’s messenger, he discovers he cannot hold the message within himself. He has a burning desire to speak the Lord’s name. It is not possible to truly love God and not be His servant.

In the second reading, St. Paul exhorts the Romans not to be conformed to the ways of the world, but to be converted to a new way of thinking and living in relationship with God. Like Jeremiah, it is in their desire to do the will of God that they will discover the purpose of their lives.

In the Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that he must suffer, die and be raised from the dead. In the previous text, Peter, inspired by the Holy Spirit, identifies Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” But now, using his own logic, he rebukes Jesus because he said he must suffer and die. Jesus tells Peter he is an obstacle to the plan of God because he is only thinking as a man. After this encounter with Peter, Jesus tells his disciples what is necessary to follow him. Jesus says, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” Those are the perpetual conditions for faithfulness to God; from Abraham, to Jeremiah, to St. Paul, to you and me and everyone in between and forever. Those of the Old Testament would not have understood about the cross, but they did understand about denying themselves and placing the will of God first.

Of course it is Jesus himself who defines what carrying the cross means. Jesus, truly God and truly man in obedience, submits his will to the will of the Father. Jesus, the Word of God, who participated in creation, allows lowly creatures to humiliate, torture, and crucify him for the sake of the salvation of humanity. Jesus proves the wisdom of God is beyond our comprehension and that His ways are not our ways. Nevertheless, he expects the wisdom of God to transform us.

As St. Paul says in the first letter to the Corinthians, “The message of the cross is complete absurdity to those who are headed to ruin, but to those of us who are experiencing salvation it is the power of God.”

It is for this reason that Jesus makes the cross the condition of discipleship. It is under the weight of the cross; our trials, afflictions and difficulties in this life; that we truly recognize that we need the Lord’s help. Our trials are an opportunity to draw close to God and receive the grace that will sustain us. Our challenge is to not look so much at ourselves and our trials, but to focus on Christ.

The more we look at our suffering, the bigger it becomes and our imagination magnifies it beyond reality. We can spend many anxious moments worry about things that never happen, which reflects our lack of trust in God. In our prayer we may not receive every thing we want, but we will receive what we need; that is a promise from Our Lord. It is a beautiful thing to discover that suffering is not just meaningless pain, but that it has great value in God’s plan and is redemptive.

A few years ago I visited a woman in the hospital who had terminal cancer. Even though she was in much pain in the advanced stages of her illness, she thanked God for her cancer because she said it helped to save her soul. Her illness gave her time to assess the direction of her life and to draw close to God.

The suffering we experience is not only for our purification, but for the Body of Christ. Again St. Paul gives us his insight. In his letter to the Colossians, he says. “Even now I find joy in the suffering I endure for you. In my own flesh I fill up what was lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of his body, the Church.” Christ’s suffering was perfect and the means of salvation for all humanity, but his suffering was not complete in the fact that he continues to suffer in his body; the members of his Church. And when we unite our sufferings with his they become redemptive.

Of course discipleship is not only about suffering. It is about discovering God’s great plan for us so that we can reach our highest potential for happiness in this life. We do that by not just living for ourselves. Our vocation is not about us. It’s about entering into a personal relationship with God which allows us to discover our gifts and His plan in which we will use those gifts. That requires that every day we spend some time with God. We all have twenty-four hours each day and the way we spend that time says a great deal about our relationship with God.

If we are to become spiritually mature we must frequently deny ourselves. We cannot eat, drink, work, sleep or do anything to excess without harming ourselves physically, spiritually and relationally. When we live only to please ourselves we are an obstacle to God’s plan and to our own happiness.

Every vocation, religious, married or single, finds its beginning and end in God and depends on the grace which He offers us in abundance through the Church and her sacraments. No matter who we are, how old we are or what we have done, we can become a faithful disciple of the Lord because of his goodness and grace, by making a firm decision to believe what he has revealed through the Scriptures and the Church and to follow him as Our Lord. We begin with the sacrament of reconciliation and make a commitment to pray daily and read the Scriptures, make an effort to know and love Jesus, continue to be formed in the faith and to share your faith with others in word and service, and make every effort to overcome sin and grow in virtue.

St. Irenaeus, a disciple of St. Polycarp who was a disciple of St. John the Evangelist once said, “The glory of God is man fully human.” We become fully human, fully alive when we deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow Christ, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life!