Friday, December 21, 2012

The Kingdom of Joy

Daughters' chapel vestibule, Boston
I’m glad I’m not a priest. How do you proclaim Advent/Christmas joy to a grieving community, even if it is a faith community? The readings this past Gaudete (“Rejoice”) Sunday invited us not only to be joyful, but to make joy a way of life. I wondered how a pastor could be upbeat when almost 30 of his community’s members—within and without the parish—were murdered only days before, most of them under the age of ten. Yes, the “feast” of Holy Innocents came early this year to Newtown, Connecticut.

So I visited the Web site of Newtown’s St. Rose of Lima Church. Some events have been cancelled. The church is now open 24 hours a day. There’s an invitation to celebrate liturgy, recite the Rosary at home, pray as a community. Two new pages were added. One of them, “Prayers for Our Community,” posts messages, poems, songs, and prayers from people in several parts of the world and from various religious backgrounds.

The most touching one I read was addressed to the pastor, Monsignor Weiss, by Monsignor O’Sullivan, the pastor of Holy Family Church in Dunblane, Scotland, where sixteen children and an adult were fatally shot at the parish school, also at 9:30 A.M., sixteen years ago. He writes:
“…in this church…there were prayers and tears for you all at Mass this Sunday morning, as the tragedy in Newtown recalled our own suffering and agony in March 1996.
     “We have been there, so we know what you are suffering as a community, though of course, only bereaved parents can understand what parents are suffering, and at Christmas of all times. Our tragedy took place during Lent and that was the end of a normal  Lent and Easter in our parish.…[O]ur prayers and love go to you as a priest, especially if you have to carry out funerals.
     “…May God comfort all the suffering of Newtown and, in  particular, help and strengthen you and the rest of the pastors who have to preach God’s love to the afflicted members of your community.”
When I sent my own e-mail to the parish secretary (I told her I didn’t need a response), I said that our Pauline community here in Rome was also praying for everyone involved. Many of the sisters were once assigned to troubled areas of our world, subject to oppression and senseless irreverence for human life. They empathize with the loss that the families are experiencing at this time and will continue to feel for the rest of their lives. Yet they also share with them a solidarity in faith, the only source of our common hope in Jesus.

S. Maria del Popolo, Rome
At meals, I’ve sat with Sr. Agnes Quaglini, one of the senior members, who certainly knows her own fine mind, and we’ve talked about the incident, along with the social issues surrounding it. She and I also happen to be in the same small group that gets together every so often to meditate together. After one such meeting on Monday, she gifted each of us with a small booklet she wrote on the “universal vocation” to joy. With original insight she writes:
“Intimate and pervasive joy can also know moments of sadness and loneliness. Evil in the world can dim our joy, but God has assigned everyone the ‘job’ of being joyful, because he knows that we are unable to handle life without joy. Only a joyous acceptance of life makes us capable of conversion and of bettering ourselves, changing the world around us, and radiating transforming energy. Basically, the job of being joyful means…building the kingdom of God in this world.”
That spirit is what believers take into public discourse, especially as firearms control and the care of our ill and marginalized now take something close to center stage. It’s what keeps us civil toward each other and what drives our decisions. Monday I ran across an interesting article in the New York Times, “The Freedom of an Armed Society.” One of its quotable comments is this startling statement: “…an armed society—especially as we prosecute it at the moment in this country—is the opposite of a civil society.” When I studied marketing way back in 1994 I learned that the fast food industry at the time was governed by no fewer than 24,000 regulations, including the thickness of the pickles that dot our burgers. I had another professor who commented that the less civil a society is, the more regulation it requires, since people are too insecure to use their intelligence, integrity, or social responsibility and to behave decently or judge accurately without fear of litigation. That we need some kind of arms legislation is clear to anyone without an agenda. However, it’s quite a commentary on American society that we need this kind of legislation just to protect us from ourselves.

Although he may not have been thinking of a ban on semiautomatic rifles last Sunday, Benedict XVI did respond to the Newtown tragedy with this plea: “During this Advent Season, let us dedicate ourselves more fervently to prayer and to acts of peace. Upon those affected by this tragedy,…I invoke God’s abundant blessings!” Living and dying by the sword—structuring our culture, attitudes, and government by it—does not guarantee peace! What are our fears? What is the reason for our hope? Where is our joy?

Daughters' chapel vestibule, Boston
I understand how people in Newtown could take down their Christmas decorations. My sister and I went through that with our parents when they were too sick or depressed to be interested in them. But it’s precisely at these times that we need even visible reminders of the reason for our hope and most profound joy. The Scripture readings last Sunday—and throughout this week—tell us that what robs us of our joy is fear, and what ensures it is faith in God’s saving presence in our lives. God asks us to give him our fears, because he is near, loving us into salvation. Check it out for yourself: Zephaniah 3; Isaiah 12; Philippians 4; and Luke 3, especially verse 16. The ultimate beauty of such salvation is that it lasts forever.

Fifty-eight-year-old composer Marco Frisina is Maestro Direttore at Rome’s Pontificia Cappella Musicale Lateranense. It’s a post once held by Palestrina, and Frisina is a worthy successor by any standard. During our community Mass on Sunday, we sang one of his songs, which I’ve abbreviated here. You can hear the full version by clicking on the YouTube link below it. (No, sorry, it’s not our community singing.)

“La Vera Gioia” (True Joy)

True joy…is like a fire, and in its warmth,
It gives life when the heart dies.
True joy shines in the darkness
And builds up the world.

…Truth keeps joy’s flame alive,
Since it fears neither shadow nor shame.
True joy releases your heart,
Making you free to sing.

True joy soars above the world;
Sin will not be able to stop it.
Its wings shimmer with grace,
The gift of Christ and his salvation….

How do we shine in the darkness and build up the world? Quoting his mother, Mister Rogers used to suggest that during times of disaster we could “look for the helpers.” First responders, caregivers of all stripes, donors, volunteers, neighbors who care long after others have moved on…the list is almost endless.
 “Jesus was born into a violent world where economic, political, and social machinations took the lives of children and adults There was only the hope that light would enter the darkness. This is the essence of the gospels: the light overcoming the darkness. Christmas is not a cuddly story about a baby being born in a manger and being visited by shepherds and wise men. Christmas is a story about courage: the commitment of individuals (like Mary and Joseph) to bring light into the chaos of this world.
     “The best way to celebrate Christmas is to just stop, look around you, and bring love and compassion to an individual or situation that needs it. The problem is not the commercialization of Christmas (we'll always have malls), the problem is indifference to the pain and suffering around us. The best way to honor the victims and families in Connecticut is to pay attention to the dark situations that need light. You don't have to look far” (Frank DeVito,
The Fenix Center for Innovative Schools, 12/17/2012).
Photos: Margaret J. Obrovac, FSP

Monday, December 3, 2012

Thanksgiving Italian-Style

It was a Thanksgiving Day to remember. Back in early October, Sr. Germana and I began talking about the possibility of celebrating this all-American holiday here in Rome. After talking with our local superior, who loves Thanksgiving (she spent years in Canada) it became clear that, for a number of reasons, it wouldn’t be possible here at the generalate. Of course, Thanksgiving Day itself is a workday in Italy and class day for me. So, the Italian sisters at via del Mascherino, near the Vatican where our Pauline Multimedia Center is also located, very enthusiastically agreed to host it there the Sunday before.

They also decided to invite our international student community on the floor below them. That brought our party to 22. With a little rearranging of the dining room furniture, everybody actually fit. I think that was easier than finding enough space inside us for all the food we prepared! Two of us offered to cook: Sr. Bernadette Mary, the American in the Mascherino community, and I. Sr. Germana took over décor, and enlisted Sr. Elaine’s talent. From the generalate community we had invited any sisters who had spent the holiday in the U.S. even just once, but only Sr. Elaine from Scotland was able to come. Since she’s here from the delegation of Great Britain, I told the others that we brought her along as a token representative from the mother country.

It’s no small task to get holiday fixins here. Sr. B had ordered two ten-pound turkeys the week before; a large one wouldn’t have fit in ovens the size of a shoebox. The birds were imported, since Italy doesn’t grow them that big. (A heartfelt word of thanks goes to a friend of ours in the States whose donation made that possible. You know who you are!) Then she went to Castroni’s, the import chain, for cranberry sauce, canned pumpkin, evaporated milk, and brown sugar. Sr. Lorenza has a pass to the Vatican grocery—kind of like the commissary on a U.S. base—so we were able to get the other items at a reduced rate. I stayed overnight so that we could pop the first turkey in the oven before 7:00 A.M. Mass.

I had already entrusted the project to the prayers of Sr. Bernadette’s mom, who died just a few months ago, and mine, who died on Thanksgiving weekend three years ago. It added a little extra TLC to the day’s preparations. With their help, we managed to keep on an even keel, while churning out bread and chestnut stuffing, twice-baked sweet potatoes, green beans with almonds, biscuits, two pumpkin, and two apple, pies. I don’t know which mother to blame for the gravy, but even though we had to throw it out, nobody missed it. Of course, it was a “spirit-filled” event as well…if you know what I mean. Sr. Rosaria, the 80-something superior of the student community, brought up a bottle of limoncello as “a digestive,” said she.

Sr. Germana prepared a beautiful meal prayer, sharing the story and significance of the holiday. She explained how, more than any other holiday or feast day in the States, Thanksgiving is the day for family. And here we are, she added, celebrating with our Pauline Family, “pilgrims” from eight countries on four continents.

I ran into several of the sisters the following Monday, Nov. 26, at “the Sanctuary,” our Queen of Apostles Basilica, where Blessed James Alberione is buried. Hundreds of Paulines—religious and lay—celebrated Family on the founder’s feast day. After the liturgy, we gathered to chat. The sisters grinned at me and called out a word they’ll never forget: “Tacchino!” I can’t tell you how heartwarming it is to be called a turkey.

On Thanksgiving Day itself, Sr. Germana and I led the day’s prayer at the generalate. Sr. Bernadette was able to join us for morning prayer and Mass. So was Sr. Karen Marie, who had flown in from the States to work on a project with the Secretariat for Spirituality. So we had a little group that could carry off a few hymns in English—in harmony, no less! Even if it wasn’t concert quality, the community appreciated our efforts to involve them too. Afterward, a sister from Sardinia quipped, “The only thing we’re missing is the Statue of Liberty!”

Those Thanksgiving celebrations were the first encounter most of the FSPs had with this blessed tradition of ours—one of the last non-commercialized holidays left (Forget about Black Friday beginning on Thursday. I’m talking about the holiday itself.) The day’s blessings, stories, singing, and laughter that colored the welcome we gave each other resonate with the spirit of the Pauline Family. Those of us who fêted the communities felt blessed too—by the presence of our sisters, by everything they shared, and by their joy.

Compared with this abundance, I have to think hard to remember anything we did miss besides gravy. The mulled apple “cider” was incredible, even though we lacked most of the necessary ingredients. The turkey frame soup that evening was hearty, even if it was a little bland. Martha Stewart would never have given a second glance at the potatoes (See the slideshow at right.) Her loss; they sure tasted good. And everyone was more than satisfied.

In article nine of the Daughters’ constitutions, we’re reminded that “from [St. Paul] we learn to live in Christ with thanksgiving….” It’s true. Scan any one of his letters, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a page that doesn’t pulse with blessing, gratitude, or thanks for something. Nor is it unusual for him to offer it in the face of the thanklessness of others. Anyone who can sing hymns of praise while chained in a maximum security prison is worth learning from! (Acts 16:16ff.)

What a great preparation for Christmas it would be to cultivate this spirit in some small way, regardless of our circumstances. When our surroundings scream at us to buy everything in sight, how liberating it is to name what we already have and be grateful. How Christian. How American.

“Let freedom ring!”

Photos: Germana Santos, FSP; Margaret J. Obrovac, FSP; Rukhsana, FSP.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Beyond Seeing Red or Feeling Blue

Beginning at breakfast the day after the U.S. election, the question of the day was, “So, Margaret, are you happy with your president?” They knew I had voted, but most didn’t my choices. In the weeks leading up to the first Tuesday in November, I had largely avoided stating my personal preferences and stuck to explaining the issues as I saw them. I was not about to change my modus operandi. So beginning at breakfast, my response throughout the day was, “I wouldn’t have been happy with either one.”

"Official" photo of the Charism Course group
That often put a cork in further conversation. But the Italians and Latinos I live and study with made no secret of their choice: Barack Obama. To those for whom socialized health care is a way of life, he’s a champion of the poor. Others, drawing on their recent embarrassing experience with a millionaire in their own government, harbor a deep distrust of “The Mormon.” (A couple of older sisters actually wondered aloud how many wives he has stashed away.) In any case, if you’ll allow me to generalize, they probably reflect, to some extent, the overall demographic of the U.S. voter. It was interesting and sometimes very entertaining to witness their passionate involvement. As one sister explained, “What affects the United States affects us all.”

A few days later, I was chatting with Sr. Germana, one of the Americans living and working here at the generalate. Not surprisingly, our conversation turned to our sisters’ lively interest in U.S. politics, which by the way, made for great TV here, too. I think it gave people a brief reprieve from the Roman circus of local politics. Several sisters from other countries were returning after a month-long course, and together with the Italians, they had expressed to us their admiration for the way Americans transfer power from one administration to another without bloodshed; for the gracious spirit in which candidates congratulate each other after a hard fight; and for the way almost all of us, the electorate, get on with our lives after either celebrating our victory or licking our wounds. Even after listening to harrowing stories from places like Pakistan or Indonesia, I can’t really imagine what it must be like to struggle for basic justice, much less proclaim the Gospel freely. Some of the issues that fire up our campaigns just don’t factor into theirs.

John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, has often said in his blog that a growing number of voices in the U.S. are rising in protest over perceived “persecution” of the Catholic Church at home. Yet the real persecution, he writes, takes place in Pakistan, Nigeria, parts of India, and other countries at a rate of almost 100,000 deaths a year and the obliteration of Christian cultures thousands of years old, such as in Iraq and Syria. Moreover, it would be too facile, he says, to attribute that to Muslim or Hindu hostility.

Sr. Germana and I thought about this as we talked. Our founding fathers and mothers did something new in world history. It succeeds because, despite our differences, we’ve been willing to work through them. Checks and balances keep us accountable to each other, if not completely honest. Most people, citizens and others, are basically decent human beings who want the same things for themselves and their families. Those who have a long way to go on the road to decency get lots of “help” along the way.

It seemed to us that we know we’ve got a good thing in this “experiment in democracy,” and we don’t want to lose it, or get to the point of murder and mayhem. When we see ourselves selling out to the spirit of the age, or when some among us cry, “Persecution!” they’re not equating what has been called “America’s last acceptable prejudice”—U.S. anti-Catholicism—with the intolerance in other populations. Our standard for excellence in governing has never been how we measure up against the norm in other countries. With greater or lesser success, they work with their own cultural dynamics. We set our standard over 200 years ago, and that’s what we compare ourselves with. The Deist principles on which we were established as a nation makes me slow to call our roots Christian, but our founders did give us ground in which Christianity could survive and even flourish.

Without idealizing it, that ground held a greater respect for objective truth and goodness than we often find in social discourse now. About two weeks before the election, I noticed that one of my blog articles had moved near the top of the popularity list. In March I had written about the way 55-year-old Sr. Annette Margaret Boccabello prepared for her death and I had made a case against the doctor-prescribed referendum that would appear on the Massachusetts ballot. So, opportunist that I am, seeing the interest in the story before the election, I directed my Facebook friends to it, plus to two others on the same topic.

Then I decided to walk into the lion’s den. I posted the article on the Facebook page of Death With Dignity, the proponents of the referendum. The response I received was a marvelous example in civility, even though the position was predictably contrary to what I represented. What bothered me most was this: “Death is an intensely personal experience, and what worked well for Sr. Annette, doesn’t necessarily work for other people dying of terminal illnesses. You’re certainly entitled to your own opinion….” In other words, what decides right or wrong is majority rule, even though I’m kindly allowed my opinion—as long as I don’t “impose it” on others. So tomorrow, when the vote moves beyond suicide to euthanasia, who gets to decide the morality? Is legality the only common denominator among us? “Euthanasia is, in fact, not allowed under these laws, and injections are *never* involved”—yet.

“Death with dignity” was defeated at the polls, but proponents are already revving up for its return. We have our work cut out for us, beginning with prayer.

Pauline Family at Mass of Bl. Timothy Giaccardo, SSP
 Those of us who are taking the charism course here in Rome are sometimes amused by the heated dialectics among our congregations over apostolic priorities or points in Pauline history. These people are really invested in this! Yet the bonds of affection are stronger than the disagreements. I know from experience that when one of our congregations suffers, everyone feels it and rushes to the aid of the other, especially in prayer.

In post-election America, my hope is that each of us can find it within ourselves to do the same. Regardless of how a neighbor, co-worker, or relative voted, can we switch from seeing red or feeling blue to honoring them, first by praying for those we have disagreed with and asking them to pray for us, even about something totally unrelated? Prayer takes us beyond labeling others or demonizing them, to recognizing them as images of God and, yes, “fellow citizens with the saints” (Eph. 2:19). We can work on the rest afterwards.

Sr. Jerome helps Sr. Margaret Kerry in Sandy relief.
That kind of prayer united us with you in these past two weeks. Those of you who live in the Caribbean, New Jersey, New York, and especially in Staten Island, need to know that you are being prayed for by some extraordinarily holy women, as you rebuild after Sandy. (The last time I checked, God still understood Italian.) I kept them updated during the storm(s), and at Evening Prayer in particular, they enveloped you in love and grace.

On your side of the Pond, Sr. Margaret Kerry, a Staten Island Daughter of St. Paul, has spearheaded a relief project for Staten Islanders, consisting of essentials for both body and soul, including food, blankets, and inspirational reading. If you would like to contribute to that, you can contact her at, or at 718-447-5071.
Photo credits: Daniela Son Heesoon, FSP, Society of St. Paul--Rome, Margaret Kerry, FSP

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

All Saints’ Blueprint for Living

Canonization of this October's "magnificent seven"
The year 2000 may have been the Church’s jubilee year, but it was also an election year in the U.S. As a student in Rome, I found out that I could vote absentee at the U.S. Embassy. So the week before Nov. 7, I trekked up via Veneto to discharge my civic duty. (That was before e-mail voting, which I just did last week.) On the way, I noticed a church, Santa Maria della Concezione, and decided to stop on my way back for my hour of Eucharistic adoration.

Whatever memory I may have had about my voting experience was completely wiped out by what followed. I had seen a small sign outside the church that read “Chapel.” So I walked in. There in front of me was a corridor with several galleries of human bones either stacked on shelves, clothed in Franciscan habits, or arranged in hundreds of intricate designs on ceilings and walls. 

It was the most macabre burial ground I had ever seen in my life. The brochure that the Capuchin friar kindly handed me quoted Mark Twain’s comment on his visit there. To the friar then on duty Twain is reputed to have said something like, “I wonder what’s going to happen when the final trumpet blows.” It wasn’t until I left that I realized it I was there on Halloween.

Stop laughing; this is serious. Wikipedia actually has an accurate history and description at

Much more inspiring to me was this year’s canonization, the Sunday before last, of seven fascinating people, including two Americans, Mother Marianne Cope of Molokai, who carried on Fr. Damien’s work with lepers, and our first Native American to be honored, Kateri Tekakwitha. Louise Hunt, who is a Penobscot, a Holy Family Institute member, and the mother of our Sr. Marie James, was there, too, with her family.

Through the kindness of one of our sisters in Rome, I got a green ticket to the event, which put me near the altar in St. Peter’s Square. Tickets are all free; they’re just used for placement and tracking. Yes, I broke my personal rule again and squeezed into the Piazza for a major event. And was it major—100,000 pilgrims major! By a sheer miracle I ran into friends from St. Louis, Dave and son Alex Mueckl. Msgr. Sal Polizzi had promised not to let go of my wrist as we were almost swept in by the crowd at the entrance. Since we managed to get inside without any serious harm to body or soul—ours and everybody else’s—we posed for a championship photo.

The real titleholders, though, were the seven new saints. In his homily for the canonization Mass, Pope Benedict repeated Jesus’ words from the Gospel for that day: “‘The Son of Man came to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (cf. Mk 10:45). He called these words the saints’ own “blueprint for living,” singling out their  “heroic courage…in total consecration to the Lord and in the generous service of their brethren.” They were women and men, clergy, laity, and religious, Asians, Europeans, and Americans. What they had in common was their undaunted love for Christ and for their brothers and sisters in Christ, in the face of challenge and even death. How many live like them today!

When people ask what goes into making a person a saint, they’re often thinking of the canonization process: Servant of God, Venerable, Blessed, and finally, Saint, with a miracle attributed to the person’s intercession before the last two titles can be given. But that’s at the end of the road. The process looks at what came before: a life of faith, hope, and charity to a heroic degree (not to “perfection,” you’ll notice). That distinction is clear in their lives, and as we’re noticing during this year’s charism course, in the life of our founder, Blessed James Alberione.

In an attempt to legitimize the Pauline Family’s existence, we’ve often lionized Don Alberione. We Americans do this with our founding fathers and mothers and with other great figures in our history. It’s natural. The professors of our charism course, though, want us to know the real Alberione, in so far as we can know someone whose confidants were few, who spoke and wrote sparingly about himself, and who destroyed most of his personal notes, as well as every letter sent to him. Fortunately his secretary, Don Speciale, disobeyed his orders to dispose of many priceless papers, and some of Fr. Alberione’s closest collaborators kept diaries and letters. From them and from other eyewitnesses, documents, photos, and visual and audio recordings, we can piece together a portrait.

That he was a great Christian and a great founder is without question. I wonder how many founders responded to the call of Christ through the signs of the times with as much energy and creativity as he. That he could be unyielding and impatient is also without question. One professor of ours, Don Giancarlo Rocca, a Pauline historian, recounted how Alberione held a particular grudge for years. A Sister Disciple in our class marveled, “And yet he’s a Blessed!” “Yes,” answered Don Rocca, “because he never stopped correcting himself.” Fr. Alberione took seriously the words he heard from Jesus Master, “Have a penitent heart,” or according to a later rendition, “Be sorry for sin,” words that made it to our chapel walls and hopefully into our hearts and lives. People aren’t saints because they’re perfect, but because they never stop saying to God and to others, “I’m sorry” and “Help me to be better tomorrow.” The more sincere they are at this, the more saintly they are.

That’s my prayer for you as you celebrate All Saints Day tomorrow and All Souls Day on Friday. Do the same for me!
In solidarity….
In our generalate here in Rome, we’re praying for the 60 million people plus, who are being impacted by Hurricane Sandy. May you feel God’s provident care and comfort in the concern of us all.

And don’t pass up your privilege to vote! Even if you don’t like the candidates and find it almost impossible to choose, pray, inform yourself, and make a decision. Take heart from these words of Fr. Alberione: “Those who do things make mistakes, but those who do nothing make the biggest mistake of all!” Are there propositions or referenda in your state that need your input? Massachusetts does. Question 2 proposes to legalize physician-prescribed suicide. Guess where I stand. How about you?

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

“Stir into Flame the Gift of God”

FSPs from East Africa join in the celebration.
Lately whenever I’ve come to Rome, I stay as far away from major events at St. Peter’s Basilica as possible. I expect to be jostled in a crowd, but shoved is another matter. There’s just way too much of that for my endurance. I’m happy enough to watch them on TV in the safety of the convent. That’s what I did for the opening of the international Synod of Bishops the Sunday before last. I made an exception, though, to join 40,000 other people in the fiaccolata, or candlelight procession, on Oct. 11, that marked the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of Vatican II and the beginning of the Year of Faith. I carried a hope that would not disappoint.

That day would have also been my mother’s 88th birthday. When I think of faith formation I think of her. I remember sitting with her as she taught me my Bible stories and catechism in preparation for first Communion, helping me to memorize the prayers I didn’t know yet and to color the pictures in the workbook—which I still have! (I had to go to my father, though, to learn how to draw a beard on St. Joseph.) From Daddy, who picked up a children’s missal for me, I got a jumpstart on the Mass responses and what they meant. So did my sister.

It wasn’t just the transmission of information that shaped us, but how it was communicated—a witness of faith in love. I could never have put it into words then, but the message we got was: “This is so valuable that the most important and loving people in your life are taking time out of their busy day to share it with you.” If anyone questions the enduring value of family catechesis, they didn’t have our parents.

When any of the instructors in our charism course speaks about the opening of the Second Vatican Council and the spectacular impression made by the gathering of 2,400 bishops and other participants, they’re almost at a loss for words. Every one of them ends up exclaiming, “You had to be there!” The rest of us have to take it on…faith.

One of the profs for our course on the Pauline charism is Sr. Filippa Castronovo, FSP. She teaches a series of classes on Paul and Alberione, our founder. We ran into her at the fiaccolata. She took a few minutes to reminisce with some of us about “the Council days.” She was a postulant back then, just beginning her life in community. She had come from a small, culturally homogenous, Italian town, which made even ordinary life in Rome an adventure. Add what seemed to be every bishop from every race in the world, “with their stories and their slides,” and she had memories for a lifetime. Sr. Filippa said that experience alone opened her eyes to a wider world. Paul would have been able to relate.

Fr. Cosimo Semeraro, SDB, a professor at the Salesianum, leads us in a study of the Church’s history in the 19th and 20th centuries, the period of our founders’ lives and of the Pauline Family’s first years. He tied Vatican II to Vatican I, which took place between 1869 and 1870. If you’re like me and you have some familiarity with Church history, you may have seen Vatican I as just a blip on the screen. Yet, it was the first ecumenical council that drew bishops from the Far East and the Americas. During Council sessions these bishops were unable to speak about the situation of the Church in their countries. It didn’t stop them, though, from talking, both before and after the Council, to anyone who would listen. Also because of the press, their accounts and insights were disseminated everywhere. Fr. Semerero didn’t hesitate to assert that the missionary institutes that arose since then are the direct result of this fertilization. He looked around at the seventeen of us from five Pauline institutes in twelve nations, and declared, “Your presence here is a fruit of Vatican I!” He added that even the Salesians, like similar congregations that were not founded specifically to share the Good News with those who’ve never heard it, felt the impetus of the Council and established their first foundations in Latin America shortly afterward.

Antonio & Fernando distribute candles & the SSP's Famiglia Cristiana.
A lot of Paulines were present in St. Peter’s Square the evening of the candlelight procession last week, giving thanks for the gift of Vatican II. Most of us were either too young to remember it, or still only in the mind of God. But we are its heirs. So were the young members of Italian Catholic Action I met, which numbers 400,000 laity strong in parishes throughout the country. I had no idea Catholic Action was still around! It was these laity who organized and led the event, something that, from what I could tell, didn’t happen fifty years ago. With its call to the laity, Vatican II made that possible—a delight and a source of prayer for me that night. As one reader proclaimed a passage from Vatican II’s Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, I was moved to plead for a rebirth in the missionary spirit within the laity of North America and all over the world. Sharing the faith is their baptismal right, and it’s our role as their Pauline sisters and brothers to support them.

Pope Benedict recalled Bl. John XXIII’s “unforgettable words” at the candlelight procession in 1962, when he invited parents to give their children a good-night hug from the pope. Benedict XVI repeated that invitation to the parents who were listening to him anywhere in the world, a world, he reminded us, that is sinful but redeemed, and so, carries the promise of hope. We all need to stir the embers a little—or a lot. When we revive the gift of faith that we have (cf. 2Tm 1:6) we can warm a part of our world and shed the light of our faith-life on whatever darkness lurks in its corners. May other candle bearers do the same for us.

The candlelight procession in 1962

The anniversary procession in 2012

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Backstage Performances

I intended to tramp down to St. Peter’s Basilica on Sunday morning with several of our sisters, to participate in the opening of the World Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization. Sr. Antonieta Bruscato, our superior general, is one of the auditors this week and would lead an intercession in Portuguese during the papal Mass. Since I had spent the previous two days in bed, however, I was in no condition to go anywhere. How does anyone get food poisoning in Italy? Fortunately, I wasn’t down for long. Tomorrow I’m heading to St. Peter’s with a group of us for the opening of the Year of Faith. But that’s news for next week.

Actors get all the press, but we all know that if it weren’t for the hands behind the scenes, they wouldn’t get the accolades—and the cash—that they do. So this week, I want to introduce you to two more American Daughters of St. Paul here at the generalate, offering an insight into how their talents and their vocation support the whole show.

The local superior, “Canadian” Sr. Rosalba Conti, spent sixteen years in Toronto’s Pauline Centre, but hasn’t been available for an interview; her time is not her own. Sr. Monica and Sr. Damien, though, happily managed to fit you and me in.

Sr. Monica Mary Baviera

Originally from Bologna, Italy, Sr. Monica can take credit for introducing me to Italian in 1973 when we both lived in Boston. Reminiscing about her 26 years in the States, she teased that I was “a little girl” back then! She never did make a habit of taking credit for much, though, and isn’t about to start now, especially when she hears my errori in Italian instead.

What she really could take satisfaction in is her service in the Segretariato Internazionale di Spiritualità, where she has served the Congregation for the past 24 years. In the 1980’s this office launched the monumental project of compiling, cataloguing, and transcribing everything that Fr. Alberione and M. Thecla Merlo, our co-foundress, said and wrote to the Daughters of St. Paul. What this has evolved into is amazing! It forms part of the “Opera Omnia,” (literally “total work”), of the founders’ output with respect to all ten branches of the Pauline Family. This huge corpus includes volume upon volume of letters, conferences, meditations, and sermons, plus the several books written by Alberione and the thirty notebooks that contain M. Thecla’s notes and examens of conscience. You can see whichever volumes of Fr. Alberione are available so far, plus thousands of photos, at the Opera Omnia Web site. Until now relatively few volumes have been translated into Portuguese, Spanish, and English. We’re working on it.

Sr. Monica is the second person to be assigned to the task, following Sr. Antonietta Martini, who worked there until her death in 2004. Two others then joined Sr. Monica: 89-year-old Sr. Adeodata (sharp as a tack) and the considerably younger Sr. Maria Grazia. Together they conduct a “hermeneutical interpretation” of early transcriptions and other documents. They research records and notes to establish the authenticity of a particular document, and situate it by determining, as best they can, date, place, listeners, and so on. Sr. Monica explains: “You can’t change the text, but you interpret the text in the notes and so, produce a critical edition, using scientific methods and tools that the members back then didn’t have.”

Fr. Alberione drew from many authors and other sources, but rarely referenced them. Sr. Monica specializes in researching his quotes from Scripture and the Fathers of the Church and translates every Latin citation into Italian. She then compiles indexes of them all for each volume and sees to the introductions. Depending on size and complexity, it takes about a year to complete a volume in this way.

What keeps her “dedicated to the Opera Omnia,” as she says, and to its painstaking work? “Fidelity to my duty and love, because I do like it. It gives me a way to understand our history and the charism of the founder in its Christ-centered theology, Mariology, and above all, apostolic spirituality.”

The Secretariat for Formation, where Sr. Germana works, depends a great deal on Sr. Monica’s labor of love. I know I will during this year of our course.

Sr. Mary Damien Vieira

Sr. Damien translates for the central, or “general,” government of the Daughters of St. Paul and for us Anglophones, who depend on her to get the government’s communiqués in a professional and timely way. Whether it’s a letter from the Superior General or a legal document, a sister’s obituary or a study and prayer guide in preparation for congregational meetings, both we and the general government know it’s going to be top-notch. Disagree with me, but I say she heads the list of our translators for written English.

As we talk she marvels, “I’ve been here 30 years! I left the U.S. just a little more than six years after joining the Congregation. The sisters tell me I’m more Italian than American. I don’t think so! It just happens to be the part of the world I know best after Hawaii.” So, which one does she like better? She’s diplomatic: “Each place is different and special in its own way.”

Her odyssey is a work of grace. The office actually opened just before she was assigned to it. Before that, each circumscription (province or delegation) provided for its own translations. But they contained too many errors. When Sr. Maria Cevolani, our superior general in the 80’s, visited one country and discovered that her advice had been translated exactly opposite of how she had intended, she decided it was high time to ensure that the general government maintained some control over what was sent out in its name.

A sister was promptly introduced to the office. During that time Sr. Damien arrived in Rome on her way to East Africa. She was in Kenya only seven months when she became very sick. She returned to Rome to regain her health. Meanwhile, the sister who had been in the translation office moved on, and Sr. Damien’s return was generally regarded as fortuitous. “I thought of it differently!” she laughs. “I protested that I didn’t know Italian. ‘Don’t worry,’ I was assured, ‘the Holy Spirit will provide.’ I’m glad they’ve come to realize it takes more than the Holy Spirit!”

“I always enjoyed languages,” she continues. “In college I had majored in English and English literature. When I was little, I used to read the dictionary for fun, although I never told anyone; I didn’t want anyone laughing at me.

“I learned Italian by listening to how the sisters constructed sentences. Through toil and tears I learned. Then Sr. Monica Mary arrived, and I ran things by her. The sisters in the circumscriptions were not demanding; they were just happy to finally have someone doing the work.”

One of the pluses of her ministry is in the sisters who receive it. “It’s exciting to see the development in the area of the English language. I’ll always translate like an American. We have many legitimate ways, though, of speaking and writing English—though some may quibble about their legitimacy. People have to be patient, knowing it’s always evolving. We have Indian, Australian (which is definitely not British!), Caribbean, and so much more. Our sisters have reached the point of accepting how English comes in many varieties.”

She won’t do simultaneous translation, though, since it takes a whole different skill set that she feels she doesn’t have. That’s OK; we can forgive an expert.

The biggest problem at this point is deadlines, especially when everyone wants her own work done at the same time. They’re supposed to go to the General Secretary to put it in queue, but some—as everywhere else—bypass the process and try to slip in their letterina or whatever. (“-Ina” or “-ino” is an Italian diminutive; it means “little.” It scales down the request, you see.) Sr. Damien just takes it all in stride. Hawaii in her blood, a generation in Italy, and an enviable spirit of faith make for an combination of unflappable cheer.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Ciao, Bella Charism!

Ciao! In case you didn’t know, that’s how Italy spells “Hi!” You know—chow. I’m in Rome for an intense course in the Pauline charism—that gift of the Holy Spirit that makes us Paulines. The course covers our history, our identity, the theology of consecrated life, our mission, spirituality, and much more. There are eighteen of us from five Pauline institutes present in twelve countries, plus our coordinator, Fr. Gabriel, who's from Mexico. We just spent several days getting to know each other at the Society of St. Paul’s vacation house by the Tyrrhenian Sea. Tough life.

You can follow our doings on Facebook at Corso Carisma Famiglia Paolina. If you don’t want to slog through the Italian, you can go to my Facebook timeline. I’ll be posting things here and there at Margaret Obrovac Fsp. And of course, starting Oct. 31, I’ll be posting shorter articles every two weeks on Pauline Faithways. Through Oct. 17, I’ll catch up with you in weekly posts. (Thanks to those who took my survey last month, I got some great direction for the upcoming year and probably beyond. Give a round of applause to our Canadian novice, Sr. Cheryl Galema, who redesigned the banner and background! It’s a work in progress, but already more than presentable.)

This week we started our 90-minute classes; so far: an introduction to our founder, Blessed James Alberione, two sessions on the print and digital collection of his works, the Opera Omnia (more on that in my next post), and three sessions so far on the methodology of research. Later this week: hermeneutics and Paul and Alberione. All classes and assignments are in Italian. Our concluding thesis can be in our mother tongue, though. Yes, apparently there is a God.

Even though it’s been great, it is draining, at least until we really get into it. So, I decided to have some fun and introduce you to some of the Americans and Canadians—native-born and adopted—who reside in what we call the generalate community where I’m staying and where the sisters who govern the Daughters of St. Paul worldwide live and work. Two profiles this week and two next week.

Sr. Germana Santos (U.S.)

Twenty years ago our U.S. superior sent Sr. Germana to Rome where she received her licentiate in psychology from the Gregorian University, after a four-year program designed especially for formation directors of seminarians and religious. Last year Italy decided to let her back in the country; we’re still waiting on a casting call for the national sequel to Analyze That. Picture that!

Actually, Sr. Antonieta Bruscato, our superior general asked her—again—to serve in the International Secretariat for Formation and Studies. I don’t know if Sr. Germana answered in English, Italian, or Portuguese (She’s originally from the Azores), but she said yes. I only half-jokingly call her “Chrysologus”—the “Golden Word.”

She has served in formation or government almost all her religious life. The provincial superior finally let her out of her cage a couple of years ago to spend some time in Charleston, working in outreach with our community there. A breast cancer survivor, her contact with people was therapeutic. “I’d go back tomorrow,” she sighs.

So, besides obedience, what keeps her here today? The young Daughters of St. Paul she’s privileged to accompany as they prepare for perpetual vows. “They come from all around the world,” says Sr. Germana. “It’s an extremely enriching experience to see the Pauline charism become part of different cultures. Yet we all speak of the same charismatic reality. I get to share the riches of our spirituality with the young. At the same time, I get to see their enthusiasm in creating new methods of reaching out to people with Christ’s truth and love.”

Last year’s program was especially moving for her. “There were 27 of us from eleven nations living in one large convent. We were so united, because Christ was the center of our house. There was peace among us, even with our differences. This is truly a gift of the Holy Spirit.” Unity like this is not the preserve of sisters. When members of families root their conversations, prayer, meals, games, work, and disagreements in Christ, trying to think, live, and love in the spirit of the Gospel, they’re much more likely to enjoy the same kind of peace. Sr. Germana puts it this way: “We let Jesus live in us and we take on his characteristics. It is Christ who thinks, loves, forgives, and suffers in me.” Part of authentic religious life is its testimony that human community can happen—anywhere!

People say to me, “Living in Rome—that must be so wonderful!” The romanticism wears off pretty fast. You can visit only so many churches and eat only so much pasta. Besides hunting for the goodness in everything, Sr. Germana has a secret for surviving as an American: laugh at the crazy daily occurrences, your “Seinfeld moments.” Like the instructor who told her to stop driving “like the Germans. Just go!” Native or immigrant, you summon your innate openness to what’s different and jump into the adventure. You have to admit, we can be good at that.

Sr. Cecilia Ventura (Canada)

“Rome! A city filled with history, art, beauty, and spirituality. A place visited without let-up by tourists, the curious, vacationers, pilgrims, and men and women in search of their Christian roots, as they follow in the steps of the first Apostles and of countless martyrs. Rome is at the same time a paradox of chaos and charm, of noise and silence, engaged in hectic activity, yet always snarled and slowed by protests and marches of every kind—political, religious, and humanitarian. Because of this—and so much more—Rome is really ‘special.’”
So begins Sr. Cecilia Ventura, an adopted Canadian, since she spent fifteen years in Montreal and Toronto. She and I talk about this place that will be my own home for the next eight months. I may be here for study, but Sr. Cecilia is here for something different. At a very young 68, she’s definitely Canadian, but also very Italian.
“It is here that, a year-and-a-half ago, I returned to live as a Daughter of St. Paul to begin a new phase in my life, immersed in a new aspect of the apostolate that Blessed James Alberione entrusted to his innumerable sons and daughters: to allow oneself to be inhabited and transformed by Jesus Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, as St. Paul lived him and give him to others. In this city, where the suns almost always reigns supreme, I came to learn a new language, a new alphabet to communicate the Gospel: graphic design.”
Sr. Cecilia clearly loves the 56-plus sisters under this roof where, on any given day, you can find members of our general government, a number of Italians, including several senior members, as well as younger sisters from all over the world. They work together at the service of both the general government and our communities worldwide.
“Here we receive the requests of our sisters dispersed in mission territories. In real time, the world is brought to us via Skype or Internet. It’s a wonderful feeling to know that I’m involved in this intra-planetary exchange that frees the hearts of those who receive Gospel. This reminds me of my greatest challenge in this apostolic work: to become a book, poster, CD, DVD, color, form, sound, or light myself, utilizing the graphic design of the heart! How? By trusting in Love, who transforms every one of my limitations. Every one of my limitations becomes the very place where, in his Son, God the Father can make my experience of the Resurrection real. Jesus tells us that his Father and ours works without pause within us, because he never stops loving us as his children!”
Next week: Sr. Monica Mary Baviera and Sr. Mary Damien Veira

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Under Construction

As I mentioned last week, Pauline Faithways is getting a whole new look, in lockstep with its new focus. Would you like to weigh in on shaping its future? Scroll down, read last week’s post, and take the five-minute survey.

The redesign is going to take a few weeks. Look for our next post on Sept. 26!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

That'll Be Two Cents, Please

I need some advice. Yes, yours. Next month, Pauline Faithways will have been on the Web for two solid years. It’s time to assess where we’ve been, how we’ve been communicating with you, and what you and I can plan for regarding the Pauline mission. There’s a fair amount of re-dimensioning in our community and in my own life these days, as well as changes in the development office. So I’ve come up with a few questions, which I hope you’ll answer, after you finish reading the following news.

I understand how “crotchety Carl” felt whenever he looked out his window in the animated flick Up. With the mega-construction going on around him, his little home was the last bastion of bygone years. Our Pauline Books & Media publishing house here in Boston is being redesigned to streamline operations. Every day, existing work areas are outfitted for PBM’s central administration and new spaces spring up. Sisters and employees have been relocated, at least temporarily; old carpets and wall coverings have taken up new quarters in the dumpster. That makes for lots of power toys—sorry, tools—all outside my office. (Good thing the door closes.) My own cubby hole will also be included in the project, but because I’m leaving Sept. 13, I’m holding out for as long as I can, dedicating myself to tying up loose ends.

So where am I going? Rome…for nine months! I’ll be taking the course on the Pauline charism—our Family identity—along with seventeen other Pauline women and men. More on that in a minute. It’s something I’ve wanted to do since 2004, but couldn’t, because my sister and I were helping our parents. Then I began working to get the grant seeking part of our development office up and running, which as development people know, is a fulltime job.

If you’ve read Pauline Faithways on a fairly regular basis, you know my parents both died in 2009. That leaves the grant office. How can I walk away from that? Well, it didn’t exactly die, but I’m not exactly walking away either. After three years of growth, it had reached a point of needing personnel who are better trained than I am. I had hoped that we could bring someone on board, but apparently since we can’t afford to hire anyone, (and some are not sure we want to), and since no one else among us is adequately prepared in the field either, it was decided to close the office until workable alternatives surface.

My office: Right of the new one John is constructing
I knew that was an option, but I was still surprised by the decision and wondered what that might spell for the future of development within the community. I was encouraged when I learned that we would keep other aspects of the department operating at full tilt. Sr. Anne Eileen Heffernan still efficiently coordinates the direct mail fundraising department. She also occasionally writes for grants, as some others are doing when possible. God knows we need it: building maintenance, education of our sisters, the infirmary…not to mention the media element of our mission.

In addition, our Web site ( contains information, updated periodically, about projects to give to and ways to donate

Our provincial government has been supportive of funding projects wherever these have emerged, like the striking renovation of our PBM Center in Metairie, outside New Orleans,* or the outfitting of modest, but beautiful, assisted living quarters above the infirmary for some of our sisters. They’ve also strengthened existing initiatives, like the documentary film on our founder, or annual events, like the Afternoon Tea for our Education Fund in Boston (Sept. 16 this year), the Benefit Dinner in St. Louis, and the Staten Island Christmas concert at the Hilton—all of which double as evangelizing moments for our guests, a central feature of all real development. The “grace-full” way in which this takes place makes me confident that we will continue the work of structuring development to meet our own aims and those of our donors more effectively.

By the way, the Education Fund is going to support my charism studies in Rome. As you may remember, a charism is a gift of the Holy Spirit given to individuals for building the Church, the body of Christ. The Pauline charism is shared by members of all ten branches of our Family, with distinguishing features (some would say, additional charisms) for each branch: Society of St. Paul, Daughters, Holy Family Institute, and so on. Eighteen of us from five branches and thirteen nations will participate in an intense course of study, writing, prayer, and sharing—all in Italian. You can start praying for us anytime!

Christin Jezak (L) made her Cooperator promise Sunday.
I’ve now been assigned as a member of the formation team of the Pauline Cooperators. These are laity who live the charism in their own circumstances and who carry out the Pauline mission and its apostolic spirituality into areas of society that we would never be able to reach. I’m thrilled; I love working with the laity. In fact, that was the aspect of development work I enjoyed the most: coming to know you and seeing how God was able to do wonderful things through that relationship. My specific aim in taking the course is to explore our identity and history in relation to laity in the Church today and especially Pauline laity. My prayer is that it will serve you as you live Christ in the Church and the world today.

The friendships we Daughters have with many of you will continue through the other aspects of our development outreach. I’ll be able to keep in touch, too, in my own way. Fr. Alberione viewed the donor and benefactor as a kind of Cooperator, including those who may not extend the mission financially, but who pray, or place their time and skills at the service of sharing the Gospel.

So Sr. Leonora, our provincial superior, has asked me to continue connecting with you through Pauline Faithways. That brings us to the survey. I’d like to know what has been especially helpful to you in the blog and what you could do without, what you would like to see more of and how often. Even if you haven’t read it very often, please fill it out anyway. It’s useful for me to understand what would draw you back to the blog and share it with others. The whole process will probably take you five minutes, but your two cents will be worth millions to me. Click here to complete it and even pass it on if you want to.

I’m sure that you’ve had the experience of putting your whole self into a project, a role, or a relationship, only to see it dissolve. That can be heartbreaking, the closer to the heart it is. Faith tells us that when it’s placed in the heart of God, it’s never lost. Our time, effort, expense, worry, and love are all there, eternally. How often the disappointment and even disillusionment, like a pruning, make way for unexpected growth and discovery. We catch glimpses of it here and now if we pay attention, but as with every mystery, its secrets will be unveiled only in eternity, and we will spend forever marveling at the goodness and love of our God for us.
* Two days ago the sisters evacuated due to then-Hurricane Isaac, so please pray for them and the PBM center they’ve left behind.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Jubilee 2012

In Boston on Saturday, August 18, we celebrated the silver, golden, and diamond jubilees of ten of our sisters: 270 sisters, relatives, and friends honored them and their 395 years of consecrated Pauline life!

Here they are in name and photo from left to right in the first picture, along with their home of origin and place of assignment:
Sister Majorina Zanatta—Brazil, now Boston
Sister Irene Mary Martineau—Vermont, now Boston
Sister Mary Peter Martin—Ohio, now Alexandria (Virginia) 
Sister Mary Joan Baldino—Sardinia (Italy), now St. Louis
Sister Mary Domenica Sabia—Naples (Italy), now Boston
Sister Maria Noel Macabulos—Philippines, now Boston
Sister Lusia Yvonne Ielonimo—Samoa, now Chicago
Sister Marie Paul—Massachusetts, now Toronto (Ontario)
Sister Ancilla Christine Hirsch—Wisconsin, now Germany
Sister Irene Regina Hoernschemeyer—Missouri, now Honolulu

Bishop Richard Lennon of Cleveland, our Boston chaplain for nearly ten years, came back as principal celebrant and homilist. He said he’s known us long enough to almost qualify as a jubilarian himself! Sr. Linda Salvatore and Phivan Ngoc Nguyen from L.A. arranged all the flowers. All the blooms were donated by our friends at the flower market! Among our friends that day, we counted seven concelebrants, some of whom we haven’t seen for awhile. The novices, too, outdid themselves. They learn liturgy by serving at it and carried this celebration off with love, efficiency, and a flourish. Credit goes also to their director, Sr. Carmen Christi, who was in a thousand places at once—with a smile, no less. Music, décor, food(!), dining service, conversation, gifts—all made it a memorable occasion.

So when you receive your invitation to a Pauline party, RSVP with an enthusiastic “yes”! If you really can’t make it, know that you’re with us in spirit. The next one just might be your lucky day.
Photos: Sr. Mary Emmanuel Alves, FSP

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Mary Assumed….

Gherarducci: The Assumption of the Virgin
Every religious culture has its own jargon. Some expressions have pulled loose from their religious moorings and entered our common lexicon. I think of “mecca,” “nirvana,” and “kosher.” Catholicism is no exception. You don’t have to be a believer to call someone “Mother Teresa” or to know that a “Hail Mary pass” is one of the riskiest throws in football.

Other terms, though, form part of the language of faith and can be daunting for the uninitiated. Try on “transubstantiation” for size, or “Incarnation.” My most recent favorite crossed my path last Dec. 8 on the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception (there’s one for you): “prevenient grace.” The poor elderly priest who was offering Mass was as startled by that revision in the Roman Missal as we were, and from what I read on Facebook, he wasn’t the only celebrant to slip and slide all over it.

Today’s solemnity of Mary’s Assumption into heaven is yet another. We think of assumptions as “givens” in a person’s thought processes or structures. The word actually comes from the Latin, “to take to or into.” So the mystery we recall today is the day that Mary was taken into heaven, body and soul.

No, you’re right, it’s not in Scripture. So what possessed the Pope to declare it a dogma of faith nearly 2,000 years after the event? The Church’s call from many quarters to see it proclaimed as such—the sensus fidelium, or sense of the faithful that held it to be true regardless of dogma—ebbed and flowed over the centuries. It wasn’t that Pope Pius XII woke up one morning in 1950 and decided to add it to his to-do list. Some mainline Protestants include it in their traditions and liturgies; certainly all the Churches of the East do, in the feast of the Dormition, or falling asleep, of the Mother of God.

Cretan School: The Dormition of the Mother of God
In 1998 while I was in Toronto, a woman almost singlehandedly finagled to get a Vatican art exhibit, “Angels From the Vatican: The Invisible Made Visible,” to come to town. It had toured five U.S. cities, and for several weeks was held at the Art Gallery of Ontario. While Sr. Julia Mary and I meandered through the exhibition, people here and there, seeing our habits, asked us to explain what they and we were looking at. Long story short, I ended up volunteering on five Sunday afternoons as an official “Ask Me” person, helping visitors, without proselytizing, to make spiritual and religious sense of what was on display.

What impressed me about my stint there was that two themes in particular evoked the most bewilderment in visitors: Christ’s Descent into Hell and Mary’s Dormition or Assumption. I had the opportunity in my broken Italian to tell the two Vatican coordinators of the exhibit afterward how people approached the pieces with questions of one kind and left with clearer understanding, respect, and questions of the deeper kind. They were elated. One, a curator at the Vatican Museums, exclaimed, “This is exactly what John Paul had in mind—evangelization through an intersection of faith and culture!”

The details are immaterial: where and how the Assumption took place, whether Mary died first or not, and so on. What does take center stage is its meaning, its historical basis, and a movement in theology that had been growing and that found a catalyst in the proclamation of the dogma: the rebirth of eschatology, the study of the final destiny of humankind and the world, centered as it is in the Resurrection and Second Coming of Christ.

Mary’s Assumption was possible only because Jesus rose from death and ascended to the right hand of the Father, and so, through the power of the Holy Spirit, was made the “first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1Cor. 15:20). Mary was taken into heaven body and soul, because it was “right” as St. John Damascene put it, that she who had surrendered to the Spirit and had given birth to Life would never succumb to the ravages of death. In other words, if Mary hadn’t been the mother of Christ, there’s a really good chance she would have died and gone the way of us all until the final coming of Jesus in glory. We can celebrate this day and this mystery only because of her Son.

There’s a beautiful medieval hymn that we sang this morning, which highlights this. We don’t ever sing “Mary the Dawn” as professionally in community as we do right here on our CD, Stella Maris (“Star of the sea”), but if you listen, maybe you’ll love it for what it says, just as I do.

Mary the dawn, Christ the perfect Day;
Mary the gate, Christ the heav’nly Way!
Mary the root, Christ the mystic Vine;
Mary the grape, Christ the sacred Wine!
Mary the wheat-sheaf, Christ the living Bread;
Mary the rose-tree, Christ the Rose blood-red!
Mary the font, Christ the cleansing Flood;
Mary the chalice, Christ the saving Blood!
Mary the temple, Christ the temple’s Lord;
Mary the shrine, Christ the God adored!
Mary the beacon, Christ the Haven’s Rest;
Mary the mirror, Christ the Vision blest!
Mary the mother, Christ the mother’s Son.
Both ever blest while endless ages run.
The legendary Cardinal Leon Joseph Suenens, a prominent figure at Vatican II, pointed out in his book, A New Pentecost?,* that some non-Catholic Christians and some Orthodox Christians take issue with Roman Catholic Christians over how we seem to attribute to Mary not what belongs to Jesus, but “what, in their eyes, is proper to the Holy Spirit….
“They point out as particularly shocking such expressions as:
—To Jesus through Mary.
—Mary forms Christ in us….
     “Our Protestant brethren object that it is precisely the Holy Spirit who is to bring us to Jesus, to form Christ in us, to unite us to him and to cooperate in a unique way in the work of redemption….”
Suenens hastens to reiterate this truth of the Spirit’s role in our redemption and sanctification. At the same time he reminds us that Mary now participates in the Spirit’s work because she was uniquely open to his action in her life: It was through her “yes” that the Spirit could effect the Incarnation and begin to inaugurate the final age of salvation history.

The best part is that the two of them don’t keep that collaboration to themselves, but share it with us—along with the promise that comes with it. In her humanness, Mary then becomes not only intercessor, but a sign of our future, individually and as a human family, if we say “yes” as she did—the meaning of today’s solemnity of the Assumption. Fr. Joseph Benson, who wrote for Pauline Faithways last year, wrote several years ago that
“Mary made a momentous decision when she said “yes.” Her life became intricately bound to the destiny of her Son from that moment onwards, and as a result, intimately bound to our destiny.
     “Our Good News is not that Mary was somehow especially blessed by God in ways that we cannot be blessed because she became the Mother of the Redeemer. That would be to miss the focus of God’s work. In her “yes,” she becomes the Mother of God precisely to enable us to be blessed in God.
     “The deepest aspect of the woman Mary was her constant preparedness to trust, even in the uncertainty of events; to trust that her God would not fail her, would not play with her life haphazardly or use her in any way disrespectfully just to achieve his own ends. She held fast to his Word and discovered in so doing the immensity of his love, that she was indeed the mother of his Word-made-flesh. This was more than what she could have dreamed of or imagined. The end of her trust was a transformation greater than what she could ever have possibly been aware of.
     “We too are specially chosen, we too are specifically graced. We are destined to become co-heirs with Christ.”
But it’s not over till it’s over. The Pauline Family reveres Mary especially as Queen of Apostles. She assumed this role “especially after her Assumption into heaven,” writes our founder, Blessed James Alberione. “It was then that she began a new phase of her apostolic mission. From then on, she raised up every kind of apostle: apostles of action and of word, of example and of the pen, of charity and of truth. All times and all needs, physical and spiritual, had to have their apostles. Mary….wants all those who dedicate themselves to the apostolate close to her in heaven.”

At the “intersection” of faith and our own particular world, that “assumption” can easily involve you and me.
* pp. 184ff.