Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Cost of Christmas

We can be real party poopers. On Christmas Eve a prominent retailer’s commercial proclaimed, “Today Christmas is over.” Now, with hundreds of my sisters serving people in Pauline Books & Media Centers and exhibits the world over, I’m not going to get cynical about retail. There is absolutely nothing shameful or even non-ministerial about selling. But if that’s the extent of our Christmas, then I guess midnight December 25 really is the end of the road.

Fortunately, despite the way many of us Christians live, Christianity has the antidote to such spiritual malnutrition. The liturgical calendar—for those Christians who follow one—serves up a feast of days and even weeks of holiday fare. Because Advent in the Catholic calendar lasted four full weeks this year, Christmas will last only two weeks. Almost every day of the octave, though, that is, the eight days following Christmas Day, ranks as a feast day, with music, lights, the Gloria, and whatever else prolongs in prayer and life our contemplation and celebration of the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation. The awe expressed in the liturgy of the Word at Mass is palpable, as it highlights one or another aspect of this mystery. Yes, Christians, and especially Catholics, know how to party. I think it comes partly from our Jewish ancestry and partly from being an incarnational people bound for resurrection.

If we look closely at the Word, though, and even at the persons or events we commemorate, we see this week riddled with anguish and martyrdom: Stephen, the proto- (or first and model) martyr, John the Apostle and Evangelist, the Holy Innocents, and Thomas Becket. In his homily Monday, Fr. Paul Aveni, one of our Boston chaplains, commented that in our day, “most would find it hard to bear the true cost of Christmas.” That cost, he remarked, is symbolized in the cross. The salvation definitively won in the paschal event of cross and resurrection is what gave Christmas meaning and purpose. He called our modern holiday “a sanitary celebration. That Baby was supposed to shake us up, to challenge us to fully follow him, so we can celebrate these eight days with truth.” Embracing such a sign of contradiction is the entrance fee.

That embrace was almost crushing for the scores of Catholics and other Christians who now mourn the violent deaths of their nearly 40 loved ones in Nigeria, victims of the Christmas Day terrorist bombing of two churches near Abuja, the capital. We haven’t heard yet from our sisters there, but undoubtedly they are intent on ministering from their book and media center in Abuja to those most affected in that area.

The question is not, “How do you determine who is most affected?” but, “How does it affect us?” These brothers and sisters of ours in humanity and faith have been targeted for destruction by militant anti-Christians. Nor is this an isolated case. In his insightful blog, All Things Catholic, Vatican based, NCR correspondent, John Allen, reported last week, “According to the International Society for Human Rights, a secular NGO based in Germany, fully 80 percent of all acts of religious intolerance in the world are directed at Christians. A recent symposium organized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe asserted that 200 million Christians are currently the victims of violence, oppression or harassment.”

What am I going to do about it?

This is the question Sr. Jane R. Livingston, FSP, asked herself a little over three years ago in the aftermath of a horrific attack on Catholics in the poverty stricken state of Orissa, India, south of Bengal. In telling me the story she said, “I asked, Why aren’t we in the U.S. doing something? Why is this not a priority for the U.S., the ‘champion of human rights?’” Her response was, I am the U.S.; I am not helpless. She then followed this realization with her powerful video, Orissa Burning, produced that Labor Day afternoon in Charleston, SC, with the help of a local video editor friend, plus photos from a priest-friend in Orissa. They uploaded it onto YouTube under her new brand channel, ProtectHumanRights.

Sr. Jane tried to get it exposure and notoriety, at least locally. She was told flat out by the secular media in Charleston, “If there’s no local connection, if the nun in the video, for instance, is not a member of your community, this is not news. Nobody is going to care.” In vain she countered, “If you’re withholding information, how will they know they should care?” It was an experience of what she had known in theory: the media determine what is news and what is not. I understand; I myself tried to bring it to the attention of a New York based Catholic periodical and didn’t even receive the courtesy of a reply.

Milan, though, did notice. After spotting it online, the organizers of the Sabaoth International Film Festival contacted her, asking to show it. Amnesty International would give a presentation. At her suggestion, they also included in the event representatives from Paoline, our publishing house there. But it was the UN that shed “enough world light” to get the gears of government turning. After viewing Orissa Burning, Pauline Cooperator Margie Skeels, who works at the UN, managed to get Franciscan International to make a presentation there. After a complicated process, the result was twofold: the European community, especially Britain, began to raise consciousness and funds, and the government of India opened an investigation, accepting the study of an independent group in India and implementing some of its recommendations.

Pakistani wife and mother,
Asia Bibi, confined to wretched
prison conditions and a death
sentence for speaking out
against Islam's attitudes toward
women in 2010. 
There have been some minor, but hopeful, improvements. People who stayed have begun to rebuild, and a new church in Orissa was just dedicated. Much remains to be done to build peace. Just last week, a popular Christian catechist/activist was killed, apparently because of his legal defense of the victims in the 2008 massacre, the third such leader killed there this year. In Pakistan over 2,500 police were present to protect Christian churches during the Christmas weekend. “Christians, who represent about 3% of the population, are particularly discriminated against and subjected to abuse and violence in Pakistan. As reported to Fides by official sources, over the past five years, nearly 5,000 people have been victims of attacks by fundamentalist groups in Pakistan: a quarter of the victims are Christians. (Agenzia Fides, Dec. 23, 2011).

No one seems to believe that matters will improve substantially anytime soon. The reason? Indifference. “If this were happening to any other religious community,” John Allen writes in last Friday’s All Things Catholic, “the outcry almost certainly would be deafening….In the Christian world, especially in the West, the basic response instead seems to be silence.

“Analysts of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict have often speculated that one difficulty with Israeli policy is that Jews have a hard time thinking of themselves as a majority. Perhaps the equal-and-opposite problem on the Christian side is that we’re incapable of seeing ourselves as a minority, even when we are.”

In his even more detailed article of November 18, he draws attention to the deplorable ecclesial situation in Pakistan and Iraq, goading us into taking personal and communal responsibility as a nation and as a Church in this nation for addressing the problem:
“Whatever one makes of the rights and wrongs of the war, the fact is that American policy helped create a situation in which Iraq has lost two-thirds of its Christian population in just the last two decades.”

So what can we do?
1. Stay informed via the road less traveled, that is, through second or third tier news agencies. Missionary congregation web sites are very reliable. Two reputable independent news sources are the Union of Catholic Asian News and Fides News Agency (Agenzia Fides).
2. Bring it to church. The Church in Charleston got motivated. The rector of the Cathedral preached on it one Sunday and put the link to Orissa Burning in the bulletin. Especially if you’re on the parish staff, why not write a short prayer for Nigeria on the parish Web site or bulletin, or for Sunday’s General Intercessions? If you’re on staff or on the parish council, you could plan for a presentation about the issue, first to the staff, then to the parish. Let your creativity and love find a way.
3. Network even if you think people have no connections; you never can tell where one contact will lead. Pass this blog article on to those you know.
4. Pray. So that those you pray for may not remain a statistic, but become real to you, imagine the people who live through this. Put faces to them. Think of their families, their worries, and their faith. What if you had lost your family? What prayerful compassion would you want?
5. Listen to the cries of humanity. Don’t be afraid to ask God why he lets such things happen. “When a poor person dies of hunger, it has not happened because God did not take care of him or her. It has happened because neither you nor I wanted to give that person what he or she needed” (Mother Teresa). Ask God for mercy, protection, and opportunity to serve.
6. Parents and teachers: Introduce the issue, especially to high school and college students, without traumatizing younger students. Introduce the theme of the globality of the Church. They’re becoming aware of the world around them and want to use their energy and creativity to make a difference. Teach them about missionary activity. Two college students in Charleston, who frequent a young adult social/spiritual group at our PBM center, went to Orissa to educate children.  They now hold responsible positions in the diocese for youth ministry.
7. Write to your bishop and those who represent you in Congress. It’s not too late to ask them to act on behalf of those who suffer. Send them the links to John Allen’s articles.
“With deep sorrow I heard the news of the attacks that, once again this year on the day of Jesus’ birth, inflicted grief and suffering on some churches in Nigeria. I wish to manifest my sincere and affectionate nearness to the Christian community and to all those who were struck by this absurd gesture, and I encourage prayers to the Lord for the numerous victims....In this moment I want to strongly repeat once more: Violence is a way that only leads to suffering, destruction, and death; respect, reconciliation, and love are the only way to reach peace” (Benedict XVI, Angelus Message, Dec. 26, 2011).

This is what Christmas costs.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas Present

I’ve been doing some unusual holiday shopping. I’ve been on the lookout for a few exceptionally insightful or beautiful expressions in word, song, and image about this season of heaven and earth. Something to give us pause. Something to give us hope. Something above the banal. Something that dodges both the polemical and the saccharin. The post this week contains some of what I found.

Disclaimer: I’m not an expert in the arts. No doubt there’s a lot out there I missed to at least equal what’s in here. My criterion was simple: If I came across something out of the ordinary and it spoke to me, I thought it just might strike a chord in you, too. You can bookmark any of them, so that they can whisper their message again during the year. That’s what makes the message perdure past the momentary “Awww” and brings about the difference in us that it did in the artists who gave it “flesh.”

If you’ve noticed my Facebook wall at any point this Advent, you might have seen the week-by-week “lighting” of this “wreath” that showed up outside PBM’s human resources office when the season began. Like one of Santa’s elves, somebody kept adding a flame and a quote undetected, despite my best efforts to ferret him or her out. Friends on Facebook commented on how beautiful it was. A “Keep It Simple Advent Wreath,” one called it; “a great idea for dorms,” suggested another.

When I ever discovered that Sr. Diane L. Kraus was our artist, I was dumbfounded. One of our co-workers had mentioned her name as a possibility. “Naw,” I declared, “it’s not her style.” As her co-novice (a sister she went through the novitiate with) I figured I knew that much. Oh my. Jesus’ neighbors in Nazareth were just as rash. It’s a good thing for the world that Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the Magi believed that God lives outside the box. Sr. Diane and I laughed about it, but I wonder how many miracles I miss when I don’t allow myself to  discover something new in someone I know or allow another person to unearth hidden talent…or holiness. Do you ever wonder about that too?

Poetry and Photography
I have a Facebook friend in Belfast, poet and photographer Ann Murray. She has graciously allowed me to use her poetry in the past. Now she’s published a collection in a book entitled Travelling Light: A Book of Days, which is expected at Amazon in early January. (No, PBM didn’t publish it!) All proceeds from sales will go to charity: missions at home and abroad, the Legion of Mary, and others.

As if intoning a psalm, Ann’s “Advent Poem” gradates and blends the shades of Advent waiting and Christmas coming, much as they do in history, liturgy, and the human spirit:

Bless my soul, Lord,
At this time of waiting
And anticipation.

May your word be as benediction
As I prepare the way for
The sovereign child
The Prince of Peace
Whose throne is clay
Whose realm is
The tabernacle of
The human heart
That bids him stay.

Bless my soul, Lord,
At this time of waiting
For the promised one.

Let my creation be
A dwelling place fit for a king -
The Son of God most high
Who comes as light, as joy,
As flame-setter within…

Then, like the shepherds of long ago
I, too, will worship him.

“Someone just broke into God’s iPod.” The comments on YouTube following this moving music score of O Magnum Mysterium are as heartfelt as the work itself. Resist, oh, resist the temptation to slide through it. Let it sing to you.

O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
Christ the Lord.

I pass over a lot of those well-intentioned essays about the real meaning of Christmas. Many of those I have perused are way too preachy for my tastes. “’Tis the Season To Be Jolly” on Dave Cooke’s blog, 100 Pedals, struck me differently. Dave can talk the talk, because clearly he’s walking the walk...or pedaling it. The Christmas season is not a joyful time for many people, but this is one person who has hopped off the bus and has gained his balance enough to beckon us to join him on his journey. Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany are all about journeys, too, that beckon us to a relationship in faith that can change our lives and the life of our world.

Finally, you really can’t toast the beauty of the season without its flavors and aromas. Apparently Sister Anne Flanagan, FSP, agrees with me, for on her Facebook wall she just posted…cookies! They’re not just any cookies, you know. They’re my sister’s, and nobody had better have a problem with this blog’s nepotism. I can smell Chicago’s convent kitchen all the way back East here in Boston! When he saw the photo, one of Sister Frances’s friends commented, “Is this a bakery or what? This is what children dream of :-)”

May we enter into Christmas with the senses and sense of children.

The season’s blessings on you and yours!

Photo credits: Anne Flanagan, FSP; Conor Murray: cupola, Holy Sepulcher; Margaret J. Obrovac, FSP

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Our Christmas Hope

My cousin Sarah teaches music history in St. Paul, MN, at the University of St. Thomas, which held its Christmas concert last week at a packed Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. Since she also plays the French horn, she lent her talent to the event—no small achievement for a breast cancer survivor. Afterward, she e-mailed me: “When the men from all [five] choirs sang Ave Maria, and when the large choir sang Martin Lauridsen's arrangement of O Magnum Mysterium, I was moved to tears at witnessing the beauty of God's gift of MUSIC being shared—students singing with full hearts, open to ignite the hearts and minds and ears of listeners. I saw an old man listening with mouth open, eyes shut, tears streaming down his face. I was trying to keep it together, then saw my horn students in our section doing the same thing! We all took a ‘group eye-dabbing’ before putting horns up for the next piece. The birth of HOPE for the world is upon us!”

That’s exactly what the Daughters of St. Paul Choir experienced when the sisters sang and danced in eight different venues over the past two weeks. Echoing our tagline, Discover Hope, the theme of our Christmas cards, calendars, and concerts is “Our Christmas Hope,” a sentiment that shows no signs of wear, despite months of planning and promotion. My office is along the main walkway through our publishing house, and I just heard someone pass by still humming one of the final numbers of Sunday’s Boston show. Nor are the songs the only thing people walked away with. Person after person said how year after year, it marks the spirit of the season for them, inviting them into our own joyful celebration of the Good News.

Everywhere, those who’ve attended concerts through several years commented that this year’s performance was “the best ever.” A man in Alexandria, VA, thought that, because the singing and choreography were right on and so together, it was lip-synched. A woman wondered how we could top it next year. In Piscataway, NJ, a girl—maybe ten-years-old—shyly approached Sr. Tracey, who remembered her from last year. “I like this one the best of all,” she ventured, then walked away. She came back and added, “I have one more thing: you all sang the best I’ve ever heard you sing.” Sr. Tracey was touched, especially as she recognized what an effort it was for her to say it.

A New Jersey man in his early 80’s is very involved in the life of his parish, but feels he has to come to the concert every year to start off his Christmas season. In Cleveland, the sound engineers, who’ve worked the concert there for the past three years claim that it’s now part of their Christmas. They confided, “While you’re singing, we pick out two voices and harmonize them. Wow! Beautiful sounds come out of these ladies. It’s pure joy.” J. D. Goddard, a music reviewer for music zine Cleveland Classical, was more moderate, but considering it was not a classical event, he was just as  positive about their “exceptional” and “‘upbeat’ performance” that reflected “their strong religious convictions and faith.”

Romeo Marquis, the husband of Claudette, another cousin of mine, (He wrote the Pauline Faithways post of Sept. 7) gave me his evaluation of the Boston performance: “This is  a great event, not only because of the music, but because of your attitude toward each other.” A woman said to one sister, “I want to tell you I was expecting nothing. What I got was a huge shot of joy. It’s the way you poke fun at each other, and I kept feeling the joy filling my heart.” As a first-time guest, the aunt of one of our co-workers fretted over the prospect of being bored by a prim recital, followed by some tweedy reception: “I hope we don’t pray too long. My knees are hurting!”

If anyone expressed the mood, it was the kids. In Alexandria, where the concert was held in a church, the turning point for them was at “the costume change,” when the sisters put the gloves and scarves on for Silver Bells, Jingle Bells, and Winter Wonderland. “Twenty-five or thirty kids started crawling out of their pews, three or four of them at a time,” Sr. Tracey told me. “Their eyes were twinkling as they got closer and imitated our hand motions. One little girl positioned herself in the middle aisle, chin in hand, probably to have a balanced view of the whole thing.”

At the reception following each of the Boston gigs, I donned a Santa hat. Armed with a matching red stocking, a sign that read, “Stuff Santa’s Stocking!” and a bag of brochures, forms, and business cards, I mingled with guests, available for their questions about our life and mission. Several signed up for a notification about the annual concerts, or an e-mail about the weekly Pauline Faithways posting. Some dropped in a twenty or more; others dropped in a prayer intention or two. A little boy, maybe six years old, rushed up to me and announced, “I want a train like this!” and he pointed to the two boxcars he held in his hands.
Uh-oh, I thought, he thinks I’m the real deal. I guess the lack of beard and girth didn’t make a whole lot of difference.
“OK,” I played along, “Do you want to show me the details? We gotta make sure it’s the right one.”
“It has to have these kind of wheels,” and he carefully indicated the blue ones on either side of each.
“I’ll be sure to pass that on!” I smiled at mom, who smiled back apologetically and gently herded her boys toward the cookie table.

Click here to listen.
One of our Sunday chaplains in Boston named Sr. Anne “Sister O-Holy-Night.” That song was the best number of the whole performance, according to two young Boston women. The Saturday evening audience gave her a standing ovation, and Sr. Nancy, who carried the performance into the next selection almost sent everybody home, commenting, “You can’t beat that.” At the Staten Island Hilton dinner concert, Sara Boccieri the four-year-old granddaughter of our friends, Gene and JoAnn Boccieri, toggled between her parents’ table and her grandparents’, where I was sitting. After the first few lively songs, the tone of the concert became a little softer. Sara was perched on her grandfather’s knee when Sr. Anne began to sing O Holy Night. Sara froze, her eyes riveted on Sr. Anne. When she got to the words, “This is the night of the dear Savior’s birth,” Sara, without taking her eyes off the stage, made the Sign of the Cross and folded her little hands. Given Sr. Anne’s blue veil, she probably thought she was seeing the Virgin Mary! Whether she understood the words or not, it was obvious she was having a sacred moment. Of course, it lasted all of about ten seconds before she slid from her grandfather’s knee and scooted off toward her parents.

Was the possibility of a religious vocation awakened in any of them? In the banter and commentary between numbers, various sisters highlighted for the audience one or another aspect of our life. Sr. Tracey, for instance, is from Loreauville, LA, near Lafayette. She told how, as a seventeen-year-old “fashionista,” her highest aspirations had been “to get a really good job at the mall,” so she “could get a really good discount at Gap.” When she visited our Boston community for the first time and heard the sisters singing during Mass, she wondered if she could be part of that harmony for the rest of her life, not leaving behind who she was, but bringing it into the song of religious life. Maybe the answer of her life sparked that question in someone else.

A man in his 40’s was visiting a friend from out-of-state. He had heard for a few years about our music ministry from another friend and decided to take a cab to the concert from the airport on his way to his friend’s home. During our rendition of Angels Among Us tears rolled down his cheeks. After the concert he whispered that it was the song that had most clearly spoken to him. When we carry out our mission, there are times we can only guess at people’s stories, but the comforting thing for them and for us is that God knows and loves every detail and heals everything in his time.

He wasn’t the only one who followed Jesus’ call on impulse like Matthew, Andrew, James, and John. A woman in Boston was talking with her daughter in Kansas City. While she was wondering aloud when the Daughters’ concert might be, her daughter looked it up online. “Mom! It’s today at 3!” Still another woman said that—for reasons we’ll never know—she hadn’t been out of the house for months and felt that she was supposed to go to this. She was glad she did.

Not only did we pray for people who attend, but many others joined in those prayers. Just look at the Daughters of St. Paul Choir Facebook fanpage to get a sampling of what God heard on audiences’ behalf. As a representative of the development office, I participated in the Staten Island dinner concert at the Hilton. Since our own convent was filled with choir members, another visiting FSP and I stayed with the very hospitable Schoenstatt Sisters. They made a point of telling us that they were praying for the people we ministered to that night. “American Idol” may invite votes; we go for the prayers!

I think this is one reason God puts people in our path. At a rest stop between Philadelphia and Hartford, the sisters got something to drink. As they stood in line to pay, a woman turned to one of them and said hesitantly, “I want to let you know, my father passed away. I’ve started to doubt. What should I read? What should I do? What prayer should I say?” Realizing she didn’t know this woman’s story enough to pontificate with her even if she had wanted to, Sister still felt prompted to suggest Psalm 23. “Hear God saying to you, ‘I’m the Good Shepherd.’ Picture yourself in God’s arms. He’s carrying you. He wants to hold you and he’s also holding your father.” The woman began to cry. Then Sister added, “I promise you, we’ll pray for you.”

The morning after one concert, a friend called ahead to a restaurant to pay for both the sisters’ breakfast and lunch for the road, his customary gift each year. He has heavy crosses to carry and seems to appreciate the hope that the music ministry offers him. “People give when they’re touched by our mission,” Sr. Margaret Timothy said. “He never wants thanks. He says, ‘This is my thank-you to you.’”

Click here to listen and order
If you would like to be notified about next year’s concerts, or you know someone who wants to financially sponsor a concert near you, e-mail me at As you sing the carols and songs of the season, make it a prayer for those who need the hope of Good News in their world.
Click here to hear and order
Angels Among Us and
O Holy Night.

Photo credits: Ann R. Heady, FSP, Phivan Ngoc Nguyen

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

"Flying" South

Sr. Maria Elizabeth Borobia is seated at right.
In September and October, Pauline Faithways ran a series of articles on what we’ve taken to calling the “redesigning of America.” (See Sept. 28, Oct. 5, and Oct. 12.) This is a new project of the Daughters of St. Paul answering Pope John Paul’s summons to the Church in the American Hemisphere to begin thinking of ourselves, North and South, as a single continent, so as to facilitate the Church’s new evangelization in a more collaborative way. Our superior general, Sr. Antonieta Bruscato, has led the entire congregation in all 54 nations and territories where we’re located “to renew ourselves and reconfigure our communities as necessary, so as to respond to the evangelization and media needs” of those we’re called to serve, as the blog post of Oct. 5 put it.

That article also introduced readers to the four sisters from Latin America who have generously committed three years of their lives to outreach among Spanish and Portuguese speaking Hispanics here—over 43% of U.S. Catholics and growing. I thought you might like to know what the Spanish speaking contingent’s been up to.

L to R: Sr. Lily, Sr. Marta Yolanda,
Sr. Horencia, and Sr. Elizabeth Marie
In September Sr. Hortencia (Mexico) and Sr. Marta Yolanda (Argentina) left Boston with Sr. Maria Elizabeth Borobia to take up residence in Miami for further study and the first steps in this mission. Sr. Elizabeth told me this morning that they all spent the first six weeks in Miami getting acclimated and concluding their initial planning. This process included an intensive course on the cultural, political, and ecclesial ambiente in which U.S. Hispanics live, a theological survey of those models of the Church that correspond best to their reality in relation to the rest of the Church, and a study of the Church in the southeast region of the U.S. Our two newcomers are continuing to study English via the Internet. The process is “challenging but progressing,” Sr. Elizabeth said.

Sr. Marta Yolanda explains. “For me everything is a great challenge—going out, leaving behind, beginning anew, and facing a different culture. It’s not a matter of learning for the sake of learning ‘things,’ but rather of [acquiring] a great personal wealth where charity is in the midst of it all.” 
Sr. Marta Yolanda on the air with Fr. Mike Harrington,
a Pauline in the Institute of Jesus the Priest and director
of Boston's office of Outreach and Cultural Diversity

A missionary dynamo, she describes the balancing act that this love requires: “I—we—need the exercise of emptying ourselves in order to be filled. I need to make a space interiorly in order to learn; that is, to make a space without losing what I am. Only my prayer and my relationship with Jesus can sustain me and give light in order to open me up to others and discover the beauty that this country has.”

In addition to what she gathers from her formal studies, Sr. Hortencia hopes to “learn the values of the culture of the USA, for example, openness to the multicultural reality, an ability to work hard, and solidarity [expressed through] generosity.”

Sr. Hortencia serves at a book
and media display.

Sr. Elizabeth commented that they’re already implementing those studies by plunging into the Pauline mission. Their twofold aim: first, to become known and make the outreach project known and second, to provide initial formation in faith and spirituality to people through workshops and conferences and through the distribution of Pauline media materials. This weekend they’re driving to the diocese of Venice, four hours from Miami, to hold a book and media display at St. Maximilian Kolbe Church after the Sunday Masses, plus a similar one on Dec. 12, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Many people who don’t attend weekly Mass wouldn’t miss “Mama’s” feast day to save their lives! It’s a great opportunity to reach those who are, practically speaking, “unchurched.” Since the end of October, the sisters have held nine such displays. While they’re at St. Maximilian’s, the sisters will meet with the pastoral staff to plan a Bible mission in Spanish and English for next year. Depending on the module adopted by the staff, the mission will provide a longer or shorter opportunity for parishioners to become more familiar with Scripture as well as with lectio divina, a time-honored way of praying with Scripture.

They’ve made a point of approaching Catholic and interdenominational book stores in the Miami area and beyond. They’ve dropped in on more than a dozen shops in the past six weeks, including parish book stores, to show Pauline titles and to take managers’ orders. They’ve shown our titles to personnel in 25 Latino parishes, as well as in predominantly English speaking parishes that also minister to Hispanic. Finally they’ve already participated in three large-scale vocational events, sponsored by various groups. All in all, tens of thousands have already been reached through their efforts of the past six weeks. Our Sunday Visitor published an article last Friday highlighting some of the Church’s initiatives with Latinos, including those of the Daughters both in Miami and in Boston.

Besides bursting with energy, motivation, and creativity, these are women in love. Sr. Hortencia wants “the Word who becomes image, song, and reach many people and give them reason to hope in their dreams and struggles.”  Sr. Marta Yolanda’s Christmas wish list includes her desires that “St. Paul, that great saint who is little known, may be loved and liked, that people may come to love the Word more, that youth may discover the beauty of our life as consecrated [women], and that our books become bridges between them and us.” If Santa’s smart, he won’t tackle this one alone.

In the midst of their activity, the sisters are well aware of the goal held out by paragraph 13 in the Lineamenta, the workbook preparing for next year’s international synod of bishops on the new evangelization: “Migrants must not simply be evangelized but be trained themselves to be evangelizing agents.” Because their initiatives are oriented toward educating people both by selling media products and offering formative experiences, the sisters are laying the groundwork for future “train the trainer”  programs that they intend to design as they become more familiar with the needs and interests of parishes. Their current methodology allows people to absorb the word now with a view to sharing it with others. Pastors, councils, and Hispanic ministers have already indicated to the sisters individuals who could intern with what they learn once a program is in place to do this. 

A generous grant from the Raskob Foundation for Catholic
Activities supplied a new van for those trips. It wasn't
going anywhere, though, until it was blessed--inside and out!
One organization is opening the door to this future for them through collaboration on the diocesan level. SEPI is the Southeast Pastoral Institute, a certificate program in leadership and faith formation for adults in Hispanic ministries, sponsored by the bishops of the southeastern United States. After SEPI’s October Regional Encounter for Hispanic Ministry in St. Augustine, directors invited the sisters to join their on-the-road team of facilitators in spirituality. SEPI pays for transportation, and hospitality is provided by the host diocese. The three sisters already have sessions scheduled in Tampa and Colombia, SC, for February 2012.

Given the collaborative nature of the mission, it was therefore natural that our Miami community of eight wanted to bring their archbishop, Thomas Wenski, up-to-date with their projects and to hear whatever ideas he might have. They invited him for dinner, but he surprised them last week by inviting them over to his place instead. What was intriguing to the community was how, in the course of the conversation, he was able to integrate the Latino project with his interest in Pauline as a whole, especially with our digital publishing, with its e-books and apps. Yet another not-too-distant innovation for outreach among Latinos.

This kind of integration with Pauline Books & Media is already evident in the way they’re working with the PBM Center on 107th Ave. Last Saturday, literally hundreds of people of every ethnic background in Miami gathered for the annual, kids’ “Birthday Party for Jesus.” Sr. Emmanuel took 300 photos for families who wanted to dress up like the figures in the Christmas story. Now the sisters are organizing a Christmas novena for every evening between Dec. 16 and 24. They’re personally knocking on neighborhood doors to invite everyone to this prayerful, social event.

Sr. Hortencia is a person who watches, listens and thinks. She describes herself as “uncomplicated, generous, and willing to serve,” and offers us a glimpse of what she hopes to give and receive through her experience. It’s almost a prayer—one we can all make for her and for ourselves:
“I hope to have an attitude of interior freedom, and total self-giving, in order to welcome everyone without distinction and in order to be inserted in a culture and live through the same experience as other immigrants; in other words, to live in solidarity. In one way or another, we are all ‘pilgrims,’ because as believers, we are all on the journey. We have another permanent home in God.”

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Upturning in the Economic Downturn

Last week another Daughter of St. Paul and I were chatting about the challenges we face in raising funds for the mission, especially in helping people we meet to understand why we’re even asking. Because the community she’s assigned to sits on prime real estate, it’s even harder. People don’t realize we bought it under, let’s say, very favorable circumstances. Plus, it didn’t need major maintenance (which we hadn’t budgeted for) until it was renovated two decades ago. A lot can go wrong in twenty years, and now it’s aging—with all that accompanies that process. She said, “People think we must have some money tucked away just to survive there. They’re surprised when I tell them that we get no funding from the diocese, and that whatever money we live on comes from the sale of religious books!” (Remember Borders?) “They’re so impressed when I tell them that we can’t just go into a grocery store when we need food and buy whatever we want; we have a modest budget to work with, and if we don’t have the money to get something, we wait until next time.” Just like the real world.

I can vouch for that. The community is not starving by any means, but their lifestyle would astound any of their next door neighbors who might bother to inquire. We’re not salaried. We don’t get a commission on how many media products we sell. Each of us is given an allowance of $20 a month. Fortunately we’re set up in such a way that none of us ever goes permanently without what she really needs: We pool our income from the work we do—whether it’s from the cash drawer at the end of the day, or stipends for talks we give, or monetary gifts we receive communally or personally. Then out of that common fund we pay expenses for the house, insurance, medical care, and other personal or community necessities, as well as for the development of the mission.

I can tell you, even though virtually all of us have tried to live frugally in the past, these times have sensitized our hearts even more to the plight of the vanishing middle class. Besides individually and communally trying to live more “creatively,” we’re putting everything we can into our evangelizing mission that, while it empathizes with suffering, offers Christian hope to those who suffer if their priorities have put God and spiritual values toward the bottom of their life-list.

In the comedy Last Holiday, middle class New Orleanian Georgia Byrd, is presumed to be terminally ill and decides to finally turn her dreams into reality. Her personal growth prompts even strangers to change; everyone is touched by her life. In one revealing scene, she flies to the defense of a masseuse who was being verbally abused by a client. Years of demanding routine work in retail had given Georgia a heart for the working woman especially, and in the process, her compassion reached out even to the abuser in justice, humor, and forgiveness.

Karen Sterling, our Boston receptionist, commented on the news about the euro today, and in particular about the greed, carelessness, and debt mentality in human beings worldwide, regardless of the size of their bank accounts. In her estimation—and I couldn’t agree more—this is what has driven economies wild. She distilled the attitude of many in a few words: “I need just one more thing to make me happier than I am now.” I would add: And if I can’t pay for it now, I’ll worry about it later. In Last Holiday, Matthew Kragen, the egotistical owner of a profitable department store chain, put it this way: “Enough is never enough.” To the degree we live like this, we are all both perpetrators and victims of our situation.

The Pauline mission can pull us and everybody else out of this quagmire. Whether we’re publishing a book on a spiritual approach to time management, singing in concert about the incarnational meaning of the Christmas season, highlighting the Church’s social teaching though our workshops on media literacy, or being present to people who walk into our PBM centers looking for a little solace, understanding, or direction in their faith life, we can say through our mission, “Yes, one more thing will make you happier, and that’s a real relationship with God.”

The Advent letter of Sr. Antonieta Bruscato, our superior general, describes the season’s call to us this year. It echoes the call that, through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus issues to us all in the Gospel:
“Among the attitudes it suggests that we cultivate individually and communally are silence, ‘understood as listening to God through the various ways he reveals himself,’ and sobriety of life, which means balance and moderation, detachment and freedom, a focus on essentials, and a sense of responsibility.
     “In the unique conjunction of historical and economic events that we are experiencing on a global level today, we ourselves should be the first to decisively witness to sobriety of life, renunciation and sharing.”
She concludes by inviting us to answer this call joyfully in “the company of the expectant Virgin, the disciple who, imbued with the Word, gave him flesh for the life of the world.”

I invite you to join your prayers to ours in these days as we make a special novena to St. Joseph, another favorite Advent figure:
Click here to order.
St. Joseph, we bless you as protector and provider of the Holy Family, friend of the poor and of those struggling financially, and the saint of divine Providence. On earth you represented the universal goodness and concern of the heavenly Father. Your own life was one of hard work and poverty. Intercede for us today as we bring our own financial difficulties to you; present them to the Father and to your foster Son. We trust in your certain intercession.
     May we learn from you, blessed Joseph, to live in the Gospel spirit of poverty serenely and joyfully:
—to produce, taking advantage of every opportunity to proclaim God’s Word “in season and out of season,” with all the media of communication available to us, fruitful branches on the vine;
—to provide for the needs of our mission and our community through just recompense for our work, as well as by seeking and encouraging trust in the blessings of divine Providence, and by sharing even in our want;
—to preserve what we have, attentive not to waste, damage, or neglect the goods of the Congregation, thus avoiding the pitfalls of our consumer society;
—to renounce: what is superfluous, the self-centered use of goods, obsession with comfort, and insistence on personal preferences—living simply and frugally in imitation of Jesus the Master;
—to build up the kingdom of God inside and outside our house, letting poverty blossom into charity, certain that then “all else will be given besides.”
     Blessed Joseph, we trust that if we strive to live in the spirit of poverty, the Father will not fail to provide for our needs and the growth of the mission. Strengthen us in our good resolutions, do not let us be overcome by anxiety, inspire us with workable solutions for our difficulties, and bless our apostolic endeavors. Amen.
                                —prayer by Sr. Mary Leonora Wilson, provincial superior
Photo credits: M. Emmanuel Alves, FSP; Staten Island Advance

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thanks-giving Recipe

Back when the Avon Lady and the Fuller Brush Man plied their trade door-to-door, the Daughters of St. Paul adopted this model as a form of evangelizing outreach. We brought our books and audio materials with us (cassettes and records at that time), which people often bought. We didn’t skip anyone, regardless of religious affiliation. If someone didn’t choose a title for whatever reason, we offered to leave inspirational leaflets or pamphlets with them. Almost everyone accepted these, especially when we promised to pray for them.

From an evangelizing perspective, this accomplished at least two things: What we left behind reminded people of the grace that God gave them through our brief visit, which continued to bless their lives even after we had left; and it was far less confrontational than: “Do you believe in Jesus?” More times than I can remember, the books and magazines we showed served as a forum for their own personal sharing and growth.

Just like one man we met about 25 years ago. Another sister and I were visiting the showroom owners and operators at the Merchandise Mart downtown Chicago. The man was standing in the doorway of his business as we walked down the hall toward him. We sensed he wasn’t Catholic as we explained who we were and what we were about. Cordially he refused, but as he took the few prayer cards and leaflets we offered, he exclaimed, “But I don’t know how to pray!”
“These will get you started,” I answered.
“But I don’t need anything.”
“Prayer isn’t just about asking. Do you have something you can thank God for?”
He looked startled. “It’s been so long since I’ve prayed,” he said mulling it over, “but yes, I do.”
He smiled slightly and, totally oblivious to the fact that we were leaving, he started murmuring, “A lot to be thankful for: my family, my business, my health….”

You would think that appreciation would come spontaneously to anyone who receives something good. As any parent of a toddler knows, though, “say thank you” is a prompt even we adults need more often than we get. A thankful heart is itself a gift, and when God is blessed in our thanks, God, not to be outdone, blesses us back.

Thanksgiving Day has been the last spiritual bastion in the yearly confederation of American holidays. Christmas caved into commercialism decades ago, and Easter followed suit. Let’s not even talk about St. Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day. Until recently, even in spite of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the traditional shopping the day after, Thanksgiving Day itself remained hallowed. Now with big box stores opening in the middle of Thursday night, “Black Friday” and its mad scrambles invade the whole week, including the sacrosanct holiday. I read last week that a woman was glad one store was opening before midnight, so she wouldn’t be “forced” to wait out in the parking lot until morning. We don’t need to take to the streets in protest of this desensitizing process, but we can resolve not to jump in and to help others keep from losing their sanity.

Gratitude springs from a humble heart that tempers our spirit of entitlement and competition. It enables us to recognize the giftedness in everything, even in the things where the blessing is disguised. Suffering has a way of mellowing us into gratitude for the good days we have, and hope keeps us on the lookout both for more reasons to rejoice and ways to share joy with others. I was in New York yesterday and watched a man cheerfully help a blind woman—a complete stranger—cross 34th St. near Madison Square Garden. Then he turned around and crossed back to the corner where he had been standing. He wasn’t even going her way.

This is the spirit I heard in Sr. Mary Frances’s story in Staten Island. Sunday she and some volunteers held a book and media display, or fair, at a New York church. A man originally from Italy stopped to tell her that he had been orphaned very young. Relatives took him in, and when he was old enough, he entered the Society of St. Paul, thinking he might have a vocation as a son of Fr. Alberione. It seemed that God was calling him to the U.S., though, as a layman. He settled in New York City, married, and got a job as a printer on Wall Street, thanks to the training in lithography he had received with the Paulines. He was visibly moved as he told Sr. Mary Frances that he would “always be grateful to the Society of St. Paul” for everything he had gained during his life with the brothers. Though it’s not always so poignant, we often hear the same from young women who have shared in our life during their initial years of discernment and formation and have heard God’s call elsewhere. We and the young women who remain are blessed to have them among us, and they develop skills, faith values, and self-discipline for life, which grow their love into eternity.

We often tell our donors and benefactors that, in appreciation for them, we pray for all their needs, but especially for the one thing necessary: a saving relationship with Jesus here and hereafter: “We ask you, O Lord, for your name’s sake, to reward our benefactors with eternal life. Amen.” One friend claimed not to be satisfied with the spiritual help and used to threaten that he and his family would turn to the Franciscans if our prayers didn’t work! Now that he’s in eternity with God (I think that’s a safe assumption), I bet he’s grateful for the “eternal life” part of those prayers!

We may not go door-to-door as we once did, but as our communal testimony and our media products and services enter hands, cars, businesses, churches, schools, and homes, the Gospel values we communicate and our prayer of gratitude and hope is the same. May you always share the reason for our joy—a grateful heart!

Sr. Tracey gets the message across
at the Staten Island concert, 2010.

Next week begins the 2011 concert season of the Daughters of St. Paul Choir—Our Christmas Hope. Eight fun and inspiring performances in four states bring these days to life in the truest sense of the word! Proceeds from any fundraising concerts benefit the Daughters of St. Paul infirmary and the construction of our sisters’ assisted living center. Click here for a schedule and music video.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Advent Light

Each year, with all the Christmas hype in stores and in the media, Advent, quiet and unobtrusive, seems to just sneak in the back door. For the most part, only the liturgically attuned notice its presence. Of course, the back door is often where friends come in, and Advent, the coming, never arrives empty-handed.

This year, its gift is sure to shine. For those of us who attend Mass regularly, the changes we’ve revved up for are finally taking off, precisely on the First Sunday of Advent, Nov. 27. Included are the Order of the Mass—the parts that don’t change—as well as all the prayers that do from Sunday to Sunday. In community we've been learning the chant to match. I have neither the desire nor the competence to expound in this blog on the pros or cons of the changes (aren’t you blessed!) but I will say that, in spite of my only average enthusiasm for yet another change, I like a lot of what I’m seeing and hearing. More importantly, I’m seizing this opportunity to renew my insight into, and love for, the Eucharist celebrated, received and adored.

I’m finding some great helps along the way. Even before the changes were announced over a year ago, Sister Anne Flanagan,* one of our sisters in Chicago, was making an in-depth, personal study of the Liturgy. So it was natural that she would then layer on a detailed study of the texts, once it became clear what exactly was coming down the pike. Sister Leonora Wilson, our provincial superior, welcomed her to Boston to give us an overview of her findings. Much of what she shared with us is now available on our Web site at Liturgy Essentials/Explain It to Me at This free content explores the changes, including the history behind them, and connects us all with resources for adults and children, especially the new St. Paul Missals.

There, I also discovered From the Pews, a blog by Jamie Stuart Wolfe, assistant children’s editor at Pauline Books & Media. It features “Mass Minutes,” one-minute forays into the liturgy, like “Chant Anxiety,” “Translating ‘And with your spirit,’” and more. In addition, Pews offers suggestions on how to make the Mass parts intelligible for kids.

Lastly, It’s a Part of Life summarizes each prayer and part of the Eucharistic Celebration in a few sentences each, often connecting it with daily life. Memorized, they make good sound bite answers to spontaneous questions that don’t require intricate theological reasoning.

The jewel, though, is the iMassExplained app for the iPhone or iPad, just released on Monday. It’s much more than a workshop on the changes. Besides putting the new words at our fingertips, with a click, it offers explanations of those highlighted words. Additional information deepens understanding of what we do at Mass and why. Finally, we hear from the Popes as they reflect on the importance of the Mass and what it can mean for everyday life.

At the princely sum of 99¢, I would download it—if I had an iPhone. Some people already have done just that. Maggie Palmer from Marble Falls, TX, writes, “It is so easy to follow. The explanations that are available when you click on the highlighted text are very helpful.” How many places can you get so much for so little?

Besides the St. Paul Missals, the runaway title has been The Mass Explained for Kids. It was published just six weeks ago and with 20,000 copies sold, it’s already in its fourth printing. A fax blast advertising the book to parishes will go out soon. I helped out at a parish PBM book and media exhibit last weekend at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Quincy, MA—home of John and Abigail Adams. Interest was lively, to say the least, as it has been in the other venues where we’ve held similar displays over the past few weeks. Juan Villegas, sales associate at our Chicago PBM Center, reports that, especially after a review of the title appeared in the Catholic New World, response also from schools has been phenomenal. His comment—“It’s for kids, but it’s really good for adults, too”—is echoed across the country.

And we’re not done. We’re privileged to offer another Web series, that will have a longer shelf life than those made for the moment, invaluable as they are. And this is where we’re going to need a little help from you. Msgr. Steven Lopes, an American teaching at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and working at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has prepared with us five webinars of five minutes each on the Trinitarian dimension of the Eucharist in several parts of the revised liturgy. As esoteric as that sounds, his pastoral approach is made both for the non-theologians among us and the more seasoned. He wants to reach people in the pews who come to Mass on Sunday and want a good reason to come back next week.

His presentations will be interwoven with liturgical footage and photos, then followed by a three- or four-minute PowerPoint meditation, to make the experience both instructive and prayerful. As you can imagine, this will take extensive editing, so we foresee being able to release one per month until March 2012. Freely accessible at, it will be able to continue being used indefinitely by RCIA leaders, pastors, catechists, and anyone who wants to grow.

Since it will be free content on our site, there will be no source of income for us to recoup expenses. So if you would like to contribute securely online toward the $1,789.00 production cost, click on the red Donate Now button at top right, and in the comment section on the donation page, type “webinar.”

As we gather around the “table of the Word and of Christ’s body” in these weeks and months of transition, you will be very much a part of our community. We know you take us there, too, and we’re grateful.
*Sr. Anne is the techie behind FSP-Chicago’s Theology of the Body online study group, a guest blogger for the Chicago Tribune and a member of the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council for the Archdiocese of Chicago.
Photo credits: Phivan Ngoc Nguyen, Margaret J. Obrovac, FSP

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Living Stones

Sr. Domenica and Sr. Susan map out their market visit
for the next day.
Sister Susan John Kraus and Sister Domenica Sabia have a much-loved gift in our Boston community: They have a knack for getting food donated. About two dozen meat, fish, and produce suppliers generously donate from their warehouses weekly or monthly to help keep body and soul together. In a house of nearly 70 sisters, all of whom are in formation, or work in Pauline Books & Media publishing, or occupy our infirmary, or govern the province of the U.S. and English-speaking Canada, that’s one gift that keeps on giving.

Especially in the dessert department. The two sisters are always ready to bring out the ice cream at the slightest provocation. Like today. It took the community by surprise, since gelato is usually reserved for Sundays and celebrations. “So what’s the occasion?” we asked each other at lunch. “What’s today?” Oh yes, St John Lateran.

Say what? The Dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome is one of those few feast days on the Church’s calendar that require some digging before its value is even minimally appreciated. When we do invest the time, the yield is rich. So let’s take out our shovels….

To do that, I’m going to cheat a little. Several of us wrote two-page reflections on the liturgy’s daily Gospel readings, which we published in book form over the past two years as a “Grace” series: Advent Grace, Easter Grace, etc. Following is the excerpt I wrote on today’s feast, from Ordinary Grace: Weeks 18-34, published last year. It takes its inspiration from John 2:13-22, Jesus cleansing the Temple. Since it follows a lectio divina-style format, it’s divided into a meditation, a prayer, and a thought to carry us through the day:
Why on earth do we celebrate a building? Granted, as the pope’s cathedral on Lateran Hill, it’s “the first church in Christendom.” Not even iconic St. Peter’s Basilica claims as much. But it’s still just stone and bronze. Today isn’t even a saint’s day: there is no St. John Lateran. The church is named after John the Baptist, whose feast is June 24.

Not long ago, a language student in Rome managed to make it to St. John Lateran for the evening high Mass on this very day. Afterward, she exited the central door, which had been opened for the occasion. Since the crowd had dissipated, she turned back for a last glance. The lights in the apse had remained on—another rarity. The high altar throbbed with the glow, and the blaze coursed down the nave and spilled out onto the darkened piazza, into the world and its ways.

Suddenly that basilica, like every church, symbolized for her the pulsing life of Christ’s risen body, that John alludes to in today’s Gospel. Jesus stands prophetically in his Father’s purified Temple and dares his challengers, aghast at his affront, to keep him down. Their ripening hatred would only provide the way for God to unleash the Spirit onto the world, and humankind would once again become a living being (cf. Gn. 2:7)—only this time it would be Christ’s body, extended far beyond their wildest dreams.

It is this body, represented by the liturgical assembly, that gives life to a church. The Church, the body of Christ, can exist without buildings, but it can never exist without this assembly. Conceived on the cross and in the empty tomb, it is born in Baptism and takes shape in the Eucharist. “…we were all baptized into one body” (1Cor. 12:13); “…we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf” (1Cor. 10:17). Now that’s something to celebrate.

Jesus, Paul reminds us that your Spirit dwells in us as in a temple (cf. 1Cor. 3:16). Like St. Augustine, who urged us to be what we are, Paul speaks to us not as islands, but as Christians together, your body. Your risen body is glorified. Let that Spirit-filled body be the way for our faith, our conversations, our decisions, and our mutual love and care, as together we make our way to glory. May those who see our “body” see yours, be blessed with your presence, and come to share fully in this unity.

“You are the temple of God” (1Cor. 3:16).
I’ve often heard people say, “I’ve been so hurt by the Church, I don’t want to have anything to do with it anymore.” Hurt is real, and it takes courage and time to journey through the healing process. Anyone who is daily involved in the life of the Church can tell you: The more intimately you live with and work with the rest of the Church, the more you’re going to get wounded by her--and the greater are the chances that you'll wound others. Anyone who’s been in a relationship will tell you that that’s what happens when you love and trust; you get hurt. Whether you stay hurt, that is, whether or not you deliberately nurse that anger and alienation, depends on generosity of heart and the willingness to renew faith and pray, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” Loving the Church doesn’t require warm and fuzzy feelings, but determination to stay with her, support her, and share in her mission in the world. Hopefully the warm-and-fuzzies come often enough to make that commitment a little more tender.

Main door at the Church of the Divine Master, Rome.
It's the church of the Sister Disciples of the Divine Master,
one of the ten branches of the Pauline Family.

Whether they recognize it or not, the men and women at “the market” collaborate with us in the same mission—building up the body of Christ. This is the Church; this is the mission of the Church. Each with our different gifts and resources, receives from God and gives back to God, then receives again and again. As St. Peter put it, we are, “living stones” being built up into the temple of God and so, we “taste that the Lord is kind and merciful” (1Peter 2:3ff.). St. Paul experienced that, too. In leaning on the Corinthians’ generosity for a collection, he made a firm declaration of trust when he told them that God, who “supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also provide your seed, cause it to multiply, and increase the yield of your righteousness” (2Cor. 9:10).

We pray daily for our friends, donors, and “benefactors”—those who “do good” to us and with us, which is what benefactor literally means. Who are those people in your life? May they be blessed with even more goodness, a mirror of the Father’s kindness, and taste God’s mercy here and in eternity.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Poetry of Purgatory

Sisters and friends process to our burial chapel in Boston
at Sr. Cecilia Livingston's funeral last spring.
Given the firestorms that the doctrine on purgatory has sparked, it’s a good thing that today’s liturgical solemnity commemorating All Souls is not an optional memorial. Yet ritually remembering our ancestors, whether in family or faith, and praying them through their journey answers such a universally felt need, that it has come spontaneously to us humans as long as history has recorded it.

The Christian practice of praying for those who’ve gone before us dates back to antiquity. The earliest evidence of private prayer for the dead appears in the middle of the second century in Asia Minor, or what is western Turkey today. A generation later, a liturgy celebrated in north Africa in remembrance of the deceased is mentioned in the writings first of Tertullian and then of St. Cyprian in the early third century.

In the centuries that followed, this communal prayer was coupled with distribution of food among the poor. This seems to be a throwback to the pagan Roman practice of the refrigerium—a kind of ritual picnic that family members held at the graves of their loved ones. As perennial geniuses in “baptizing” cultural expressions, Christians offered the Eucharist on the graves of the martyrs, praying also by association, for the deceased buried nearby. Instead of pouring out libations to honor and supplicate the gods on behalf of the deceased, they shared the body and blood of the Lord and then extended that love to the poor in their memory. That kind of almsgiving has always been one of the suffrages we’ve been encouraged to offer for the deceased. The outreach that springs from the social dimension of our faith is one of the most important crossroads where belief and life intersect.*

First Martyrs of the
Church of Rome
I’ve been to Rome a few times now, most often to study or work. Depressing as it may sound, what draws me each time, probably more than the churches, are the catacombs. Sixty-three of these underground burial networks circle the city, nine of them Jewish and the others either Christian, or pagan and Christian. Relatively few are open to us, the public, but those that are, are treasure houses of Christian identity and history. I feel so connected with those who were, or still are, buried there, my ancestors in faith. Even as I thank them, I can’t help praying for them as I visit. If they can’t use my prayers, somebody can.

What kind of understanding fuels this current of devotion? Despite the likelihood that the vast majority of us human beings make a pit stop in purgatory on the speedway to the kingdom, the Church’s teaching on the topic that’s outlined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church is surprisingly sparing. I remember my father’s disappointment that the section consisted of just three paragraphs and two quotes (nn. 1030-1032). That alone told him exactly what the Church intended to say—that the mystery, which is hardly central to her teaching and can easily spin out of control, is best expressed plainly. What’s clearly intended, too, is that to avoid reducing it to a caricature, it’s supposed to be understood in connection with a host of other teachings that are central, like redemption, resurrection, love, sin, faith, and human destiny. But for a man like my dad, who referred to the people there as his “friends,” such a dearth of devotion called for strenuous objection. It was personal.

If brevity is the soul of wit, there’s a deliberate pedagogy in that short text. After you reread it a few times, certain words jump out. A key concept is purification. Not once is it described as punishment, even though it’s implied when it states that this “purification of the elect” is “entirely different from the punishment of the damned” (n. 1031). Words like “cleansing” and “deliverance” highlight the healing, restorative nature of this purging experience.

In the Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri’s poetic imagination hunts for words to express this purifying process of the discovery and growth in love. Discussions about the work’s political scope aside, the Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso are awash with an array of images that acclaim love vindicated, love purified, and love celebrated. Both in hell and in purgatory, the action of the Comedy is driven by Dante’s contrapasso, the type of suffering that the characters undergo according to the type of their sin or vice. The monumental difference between the two conditions is that the suffering in hell punishes, while that in purgatory refines and redirects.

R to L: Aurelia, Sr. Frances, my
sister, and Sr. Bernardine (a friend
of our parents--and ours, too!)
It was hard for my sister, my father, and me to watch my mother live with Alzheimer’s Disease for over ten years. If we hadn’t known her, we wouldn’t have understood anything of how hard it was for her, too, since the disease gradually robbed her of her ability to speak. We struggled with the seeming senselessness of it all. Just as we shared the sorrow, though, we also shared our faith in Christ. One day, my dad said, “You know, I think Mama is doing her purgatory here on earth.” Dante must have been in the room. “Yes,” I agreed, “if her love is being purified, she is ‘doing her purgatory’ here.” And she was being refined like that. A sweet person to the end, with expressive eyes and a ready giggle, she was also independent and very firm in her convictions and preferences. She expended every effort she could, even in her condition, to make life better for us and to peacefully rest in God and in our love for her. A parishioner told us that she was “no longer afraid of Alzheimer’s Disease, because I’ve known your mother.” God made Aurelia bigger than her disease.

I think that the more we trust this God, the more surely we will be awakened to hope in the face of whatever comes our way. A life like that, a day like this, draws us back to the way in which we live. There is certainty in that hope, not just wishful thinking. Regardless of the circumstances of our last days, we are in the hand of God, as the optional reading from the book of Wisdom in today’s liturgy reminds us, a hand that is always ready to receive us. 

This was brought home to me by a book that Pauline Books & Media recently published—Wisdom for Living the Final Season, by Kathy Kalina, a hospice nurse from Fort Worth, Texas. She’s already known to PBM readers as the author of one of our constant best sellers, Midwife for Souls. Refreshingly readable, Final Season’s short chapters are dotted with stories from her twenty-two years of experience. The spiritual dimension we’ve been talking about is woven in convincingly and sensitively. Although the last few pages treat the topic of purgatory, it’s the introduction that expresses it best for me:
“Courage is not the absence of fear. Rather, it’s the ability to put one foot in front of the other and to do whatever needs to be done with our eyes fixed on the goal. Somewhere on that journey toward the goal, each of us will die, but only on one day. All the rest is living.”
* Production on the film about Blessed James Alberione “the first apostle of the new evangelization” (John Paul II) is still in the works (See the video bar at right.). So is its fundraising. If you would like to make a contribution in memory of a loved one, contact me, Sr. Margaret J. Obrovac, FSP, either by e-mail at, or by phone at 617-676-4423.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Master of the New Evangelization

Divine Master window, FSP general
motherhouse, Rome
Partway through my flight from Rome last week, “Sara” asked if she might occupy the empty seat next to me. A few seats up, her friend had a visitor who was sitting in Sara’s place for a couple of hours, and she was hoping to take a snooze. What made her think she’d be able to sleep, with me next to her?

Actually, she started it. Somewhat hesitantly at first, she told me her story. She had been working in Europe for the past six months, and on her way back, decided to spend four days in Rome. It changed her life. More precisely, St. Peter’s changed her life. She spent two days there crying her heart out, as she realized how much she had missed while “away” from her faith. When her boyfriend called her, he realized how profoundly she had been touched by grace, though he didn’t call it that. A little mystified at how she had sleepwalked through the past several years, she admitted to me that she hadn’t had a quarrel with the Church; it just hadn’t mattered to her. Not like this. She had just stopped giving God, faith, the Church, a meaningful place in her life.

I’m halfway through the lineamenta (workbook) in preparation for next year’s synod, or convocation, of bishops in Rome, entitled, The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith. Back in 1979 John Paul II had called for this “new evangelization” so that all of us in the Church would reach out to people like Sara and invite them to share in the relationship of faith that has put some sense into our lives, our world, our future, and our eternity.

Why “new”? Wasn’t it done right in the first place? Is it just a matter of repeating the past?

A quick glance at our tradition, with our Catholic penchant for reinventing ourselves and adopting new paradigms for proclaiming the Gospel, offers some insight. In the early Church Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist were primarily adult sacraments, and the process toward the Easter celebration of these mysteries was a journey for converts. The whole Christian community accompanied them. As Christianity took root in various cultures of Asia, Africa and Europe, people were, so to speak, born into communities that were already Christian and both those sacraments and the catechesis leading up to them had to be inculturated accordingly. Lent took on a new configuration.

The same with “reading” the Gospel. The newness of the message, that is, salvation as faith in God through relationship with Jesus, took on a moral emphasis for the benefit of people who had left behind the initial teaching of Christ and were moving on to maturity (cf. Heb. 6:1): “Yes, yes, we know Jesus, but what does that mean for us today in our milieu?” These approaches were carried also to the lands newly explored by Europeans and were more or less successfully inculturated there.

Today, we have been cast back to the pre-Christian challenge. We live in a post-modern and, some would say, post-Christian era. That key message of the Gospel has once again taken center stage: Who is Jesus? Why is he important?

If we couch the Gospel solely or even primarily in moralistic or ascetical terms, we have no answer for those who counter: “I’m a good person. Why should I become a Christian?” It’s useless to tell them that they won’t be able to maintain that goodness without the moral prescriptions of the Gospel. Their circle of relatives, friends, and acquaintances belies that. It has to be framed in terms of relationship with Jesus, who fulfills the Torah as the path or Way of salvation, of becoming holy like God. Only Jesus Christ is the source of this “sanctifying” grace. Certainly this relationship has profound moral, and therefore, social, implications. But their reference point is Jesus Christ, not the acquisition of virtue, or even the right ordering of society. Jesus Christ.

In the late-90’s I was assigned to our community in Toronto, where we hosted a flourishing young adult prayer group that met every Saturday evening. A continuous reading and discussion of a Church document or of the Catechism of the Catholic Church was, believe it or not, a lively part of the evening. One Saturday, we talked about how we are called to be truly human. Finally the question came up: “How do we know what it is to be human?” The answer: Jesus Christ. It hit the group like a thunderbolt. Suddenly the Gospel made personal sense. One young Muslim, a friend of one of the regulars, commented afterward, “Now I understand what Christianity is about.”

This is what profound people grasp when they sift through the Gospel data. This is what either makes or breaks their acceptance of Christianity: relationship with Jesus, who says, if you want to be perfect, follow me. This is the crux of the new evangelization. In the lineamenta that I’m reading, this relationship, personal encounter, or communion with the Lord is mentioned 31 times. Faith is not primarily something to believe, but Someone to believe in, to entrust one’s life to.

This is why Pauline theology and spirituality is of fundamental importance today. It actually articulates the essence of the Gospel, being “clothed with Christ,” being incorporated into Christ, so that all together we become one body with him. This is why James Alberione is, as John Paul II stated at our founder’s beatification, “the first apostle of the new evangelization.” Not only because he used modern media to proclaim the Gospel, but because, like Paul, he emphasized configuration with Christ the Master. Naturally, because he spoke to members who were raised in an Italian, a Christian, culture, he placed emphasis on moral and spiritual terms. But his reference was always the Gospel and he insisted that everyone read it in order to know how to live it—a novelty at the turn of the last century. His lodestar was the primacy of Christ.

In the first volume of his book, Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict comments that in no way was the Person of Christ ever overshadowed, much less replaced, by a moral code. In fact, he himself became the locus of salvation, its “efficient cause,” as theologians love to say (cf. p. 105). That is, the power to live in virtue is the consequence of our union with Christ. In his encyclical, God Is Love, (also available in book form here at the Pope writes, “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction….Since God has first loved us (cf. 1Jn. 4:10), love is now no longer a mere ‘command’; it is the response to the gift of love with which God draws near to us” (n. 1).

Religious life, too, is not a means of sanctification by the “practice of virtue,” as if practicing a sport, clambering up the ladder, and envious of each other, as von Balthasar says in Heart of the World (p. 177), but because it empowers us through vowed life, to deeply live our Christian life, a path to becoming configured with Christ, which is the goal of every life.

Through technology people today seem geographically closer to each other, but are often paradoxically isolated from each other—sometimes through the same technology. Yet, like every human being in generations past, we all long for intimacy, a relationship with someone who knows to our depths and loves us in spite of ourselves. Christianity offered as this kind of relationship constitutes the key to the “new evangelization,” not only with Jesus Christ, but with his body, the Church. Not that this hasn’t been done in the past. But with each succeeding generation humanity renews itself on the face of the earth. It faces new situations that present challenges to faith and faith-life that were unknown in the past. It cannot be assumed anywhere by anyone that any culturally Christian population will remain that way without a new assessment of its situation and new creativity in forging the bonds of faith. For this reason the lineamenta urges us to a commitment “not of re-evangelization, but rather of a new evangelization; new in ardour, methods and expression” (n. 5).
The first PBM app:
Rosary Miracle Prayer
Whether it takes the form of the new Pauline Books & Media “Discover hope” tagline, or the upcoming Christmas concerts with the Daughters of St. Paul Choir, or the eleven-and-counting Pauline Books & Media apps in the iTunes catalogue, we’re committed to this new evangelization. For people like my friend Sara, faith has to be tangible. In fact, that’s what spoke to her at St. Peter’s. She touched faith made visible. In fact, one of her questions, which will have profound implications for her in the months ahead, was: Is such a testament to faith a thing of the past, or will it take shape again? My own conviction is that we will again see the incarnational character of Catholicism that shaped the past because it exists even now—in the sacraments, in our service to each other, and in the seeming banality of the media culture we’re immersed in: treasure in the field. When I described cinema divina as a faith-based way of movie viewing (see the blog post of 6/1/2011), she exclaimed, “I want that! How can I get it?” Facebook, I said; just type in cinema divina. Only a lived faith can feed the world.

This coming Sunday the Pauline Family celebrates the solemnity of Jesus, the Divine Master, Way, Truth, and Life. The whole person in relationship with the whole Christ, head and body of the Church, is the center of our life and Pauline mission, as it was for Paul the Apostle. We will share that day with our friends, Pauline Cooperators, and donors. As we do, we will pray that the Good News we believe, live, and honor in the person of Christ the Teacher may fill our world—your world—with light, peace, and its gentle, yet persistent, power.