Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Conscience "Claws"

Photo: Courtesy of Ann Nicolosi-Foose
It’s official: Last Friday, Kathleen Sebelius, secretary for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, announced the administration’s decision to require almost all religious institutions that provide employee health insurance to now include coverage for contraception, sterilization, and abortion, regardless of that institution’s objection on the basis of conscience. Coming as it does two days shy of the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, which legalized abortion on demand, we would be forgiven if we felt a deliberate slap in the face, especially given Ms. Sebelius’s public history of contempt for Catholic and religious sensibilities on the issue.

What this means is that Catholic hospitals, universities, diocesan services, and other institutions that have not performed these procedures or paid for them to be done must now see to it that their employees—those who carry out the mission of these organizations—have access to the procedures, even though compliance to this requirement flies in the face of everything that institution stands for. This also means that anyone paying premiums to such insurers would be supporting these “services,” whether they ever use them or not.

The U.S. bishops are protesting and urging us to join them. “US bishops rally Catholics to fight Obama abortifacient birth control mandate,” an article on, reports that “the mandate’s current conscience clause, according to U.S. bishops, amounts to little more than a fig leaf: the clause would only allow an opt-out for religious employers who employ and serve solely members of their own religion.

“Health and Human Services must think Catholics and other religious groups are fools,” USCCB Communications Director Sr. Mary Ann Walsh wrote….“HHS’s reg[ulation] conveniently ignores the underlying principle of Catholic charitable actions: we help people because we are Catholic, not because our clients are.”

In a slightly different take in his latest column in The Tidings, L.A.’s Archbishop José Gómez reports “solely” as “primarily” and adds that the organization must exist to teach religious values. No doubt this will be clarified for us in the next several months, since organizations have a year to comply. Says Timothy M. Dolan, Archbishop of New York, and President of the USCCB, “In effect, the president is saying we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences” (Reported in LifeSite, Friday, Jan. 20, 2012). In the video below he highlights the watershed character of this decision: “Never before has the federal government forced individuals and organizations to go out into the marketplace and buy a product that violates their conscience.”

(For this and related information, go to Web site of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.)

Pregnancy is not a disease. Even if it were, prevention would be optional and its cure would constitute elective surgery; coverage for any of this is not mandatory. The insured and their employers are not to be forced to choose between foregoing insurance or abandoning conscience to pay for this. As with all other social ills, it will be our nation’s 46.2 million poor who will suffer most.

Think this is a Catholic question? The article cites the National Association of Evangelicals warning against the “dangerous precedent,” set by this ruling. If upheld, it would not be surprising to see it applied to other issues: euthanasia, genetic manipulation, embryonic experimentation, redefinition of marriage, military draft for wars of aggression, and all the social evils that derive from them, including educating youth in the “party line” in our schools. Sectarian schools would not be exempt.

In his address last week to several U.S. bishops making their “ad limina” visit in Rome, Benedict XVI noted this disregard for conscience when Catholic “cooperation in intrinsically evil practices” is mandated by our government. It is symptomatic of what he described as “a worrying tendency to reduce religious freedom to mere freedom of worship without guarantees of respect for freedom of conscience.”

Coincidentally, last night, while many Americans listened to the president’s State of the Union address, I was watching, for the umpteenth time, A Man for All Seasons. What Thomas More said about statesmen applies to us all: When citizens “forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties, they lead their country by a short route to chaos.” For this reason, Pope Benedict told the bishops that their primary task in the current climate is the preparation of “an engaged, articulate and well-formed Catholic laity endowed with a strong critical sense vis-à-vis the dominant culture and with the courage to counter a reductive secularism” that tries to exclude Catholic participation “in public debate about the issues which are determining the future of American society.”

So what can you and I do?
1. Besides sharing this blog article, share reputable sources of information: Web sites, blogs, news channels of every medium. (See Additional Resources below.)
2. A bill to implement adequate conscience protections, the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act has stagnated in Congress for the past year. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston, is urging passage of the bill, and the USCCB is asking Catholics to contact their representatives in Congress in support of it. Click here.
3. Pray. Today the Church celebrates the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, a unique commemoration in the Church Year, an indication of its influence and impact over the ages...and of its relevance today. We can entrust the change of our culture to his powerful prayers to God.

Additional Resources
“ObamaCare and Religious Freedom,” by Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan in the Wall Street Journal
“A Time for Catholic Action and Catholic Voices,” by Archbishop José Gómez, in The Tidings Online Catholics for the Common Good, a lay apostolate for the evangelization of culture
Chiaroscuro Foundation, providing alternatives to abortion and promoting religious liberty
Association of Pauline Cooperators,  witnessing to Jesus Christ, Way, Truth and Life, through the use of the media of social communication.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Spiritual, But Not Religious

Over the past eighteen months, I acquired somewhere in the vicinity of 2,200 Facebook friends. For some reason, Facebook automatically sends out friend invitations in my name and accepts invitations on my behalf. I’ve come across other people who say they run into the same problem. So I’ve begun thinning out my garden of “friends.” They’ll probably never notice.

In the process, though, I’ve discovered something. If you go onto either the “About” or “Info” page of a person’s Facebook account, you’ll often see a category heading called “Religious Views,” provided the person has decided to go public with such private data. (Ahem.) That part I knew. What’s interesting is the large number of people who, rather than affiliate themselves with a religious body, describe themselves as “spiritual,” or some variation on the theme. Here are some of my favorites:
“Spiritually aware.”
“In tune with the universe.”
“We Are All ONE.”
“Spirituallity (sic) is what matters”
“Gnostic (not Agnostic) wink.”
“Guess what happens when a Jewish/Agnostic woman marries a Presbyterian/Atheist man.”

Of course the distinction of being “spiritual, not religious” is nothing new, but the trend seems to be gaining steam. In both the private and public spheres, religion is increasingly seen as a divisive force in pluralistic societies or as a repressive force in either homogenous or totalitarian ones, especially where only one religion is sanctioned by the government. Add to this a frightening ignorance of culture, which includes religious tradition and practice, plus a relegation of faith-life to the private sector, and it’s no wonder that people feel downright uncomfortable and inept at conversing about any religious concepts with any religious vocabulary. Then when faced with sincere seekers, they have nothing to offer.

Believers of whatever stripe don’t help the situation sometimes, especially when we get self-righteous and insulting, clever as we may be. About fifteen years ago on a plane from Montreal to Toronto, I sat next to a young Chinese atheist, a mathematician, married to a nominally Catholic Quebecer. She had tried to ask him about his faith, without success. So she asked me. In the course of the conversation, it came out: As a student, she had been bullied by campus Christians trying to convert her. The experience had soured her to Christianity, but the God-question never went away. Needless to say, I made sure to be on my best behavior! At the end of an hour, she said, “If someone had talked to me like this five years ago, I’d be a Christian today.” She meant it as a compliment, but it was like a knife in my heart. When will we learn to respect the pace of every person’s journey to faith? As we witness to our relationship with our saving God, we need to put our hand in God’s, not try to take his place.

To straddle the fence and disavow any connection with religion, or to claim an exclusively individual relationship with Jesus may be “safe,” as one sister put it yesterday when we chatted about this. Is it true, though, to who we are? By nature, we human beings can’t be only “spiritual.” We’re corporeal too: we have, we are, a body. We’re not just a soul stuffed into a body that someday, somehow gets released through death, or nirvana, or a transcendent experience. We’re a composite of soul, spirit, mind, will, feelings, flesh, memory, imagination, relationships, and a personal and communal history, present, and destiny. That destiny, for good or ill—our choice— will encompass the whole of us. So our personal and communal relationship with God has to be both “spiritual” and bodily. This is where religion factors in. It may seem tidy to separate the two, but it doesn’t reflect the truth of who we are. We’re naturally religious, which means that God searches for us, and we respond by searching for God: “…religion is…the response of faith to God who reveals himself” (Tertio millennio adveniente, 6). So our response, if it’s genuine, will have all the earmarks of bodiliness. The great religions are incarnational, Christianity in particular.

Which brings us to the Church. If, as Paul says, Christ is the head of his body the Church (cf. Col. 1:18), there’s no splitting up, regardless of the Church’s condition. “What God has joined together, let no one separate” (Mt. 19:6).

Theresa Noble, one of our postulants (“a nun in training” as she puts it), maintains a personal blog, Pursued by Truth ( On my Facebook wall the other day, she shared her latest post, “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus: A Beer With Jeff Bethke.” Not only did she embed and analyze Jeff’s YouTube video, which in the past week has gone viral, with over 14 million views. With respect and insight, in an “excellent commentary,” writes one of my FB friends, Theresa also analyzed the worldwide response it’s generating. In a world where public discourse too often lacks basic civility, Theresa’s article challenges all of us who say we represent Jesus and the Church to honor both by the way we listen, speak and act.

Today the Christian world observes the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. This year’s theme was chosen by the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Old Catholic, and Protestant churches of Poland: “We will all be changed by the victory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1Cor. 15:51-58). Rather than paint victory with the brush of triumphalism, it points to a shared victory through spiritual transformation and the conversion that gathers all Christians in service of God and neighbor. It works toward a victory that overcomes evil with good (cf. Rom. 12:21).

Those at the helm of the ecumenical movement constantly repeat the necessity of not minimizing what characterizes each religious body. We need to know and express who we are, to understand our identity, so we can name what’s at the root of our common identity. What’s vital is our attitude: not approaching the task at hand over and against another religious group, but in relation to it. From there we can better resolve our differences, which is the ultimate “victory of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Marriage of Christ Revealed

The Church Year began with a big bang: a liturgical Haley’s Comet in the form of the most significant changes in the Mass we’ve had in decades. We also passed through the longest Advent we could possibly have and the shortest Christmas. That has given us one of the rare alignments of liturgical stars: the “Epiphany convergence” of the wedding at Cana, the visit of the Magi, and the Baptism of Jesus.

The what?

One of the perks of daily Mass attendance is the chance to hear and consider in rapid succession Gospel texts that don’t pop up more than once every three years on Sundays.  Of course, we can read them on our own. If left to our own devices, though, most of us probably wouldn’t make the connections we get in the liturgy. We just passed one such sequence: the wedding at Cana (Saturday), the adoration of the Magi (Sunday), and the Baptism of the Lord (Monday).

Reflecting on the arc of Christ’s life, the early Church noticed a number of manifestations—epiphanies—of God’s glory. In fact, the Last Supper in John’s Gospel opens the “Book of Glory” of Christ’s passion and death, a title that would have resonated with Mark, who saw the zenith of that glory in the cross and placed the Gentile act of faith, not on the adoration of wise men from the East as Matthew did, but on the lips of the crucifying centurion (cf. Mk. 15:39). The Church also noticed that some of these epiphanies marked a beginning in Christ’s life, and others pertained to its completion. The three beginners were—you guessed it—the visit of the Magi, Jesus’ Baptism in the Jordan, and the wedding at Cana. It wasn’t until the end of the fourth century that these three epiphanies were celebrated separately.

In a sense, John Paul II wove them together again, at least in popular piety, when he added the Luminous Mysteries to the Rosary. Acknowledging that “certainly the whole mystery of Christ is a mystery of light. He is the “light of the world” (Jn 8:12),” John Paul added Cana and the Baptism to the Rosary chain of meditations, presupposing that the adoration of the Magi would be considered within the Joyful Mysteries. “Each of these mysteries,” he wrote, “is a revelation (epiphany) of the Kingdom now present in the very person of Jesus” (Apostolic Letter on the Most Holy Rosary, 21).

This mystery is profoundly a part of our own life and charismatic history as a Pauline Family. Our founder, Blessed James Alberione attached these words from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians 3:12 to the seal of the Pauline Family, as a summary statement about our purpose: “That the manifold wisdom of God may be made known.”

This manifestation of the Good News in Jesus Christ—this evangelization—is meant to be seen first of all in the members of the Pauline Family. The last of the ten branches to be founded is suggested both by Nazareth and by the Cana aspect of Epiphany—the Holy Family Institute. This secular institute exists to help couples grow in holiness together and so, manifest the glory of God in Christ, in his relationship with the Church. Of course, that’s one of the purposes of Christian marriage anyway. The vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience that HFI couples make, however, carry out that purpose in a specifically Pauline way. Obviously, members don’t live those vows the way we celibate Paulines in community live them. Still, the vows connect them with the religious members in a perpetual relationship as family, and through this, with God, “so that the manifold wisdom of God may be made known.”

Over and over again, throughout the history of Israel, God went to great lengths to demonstrate how close he was to his people. He chose an array of words and images that told them that not only was he God, and the one God at that, but the living God who made and chose them, a personal God, who wanted a joyful, saving relationship with them. “The most amazing image,” writes Fernando M. Cornet in The Epiphany of Jesus Christ,* “was that of Bridegroom and bride, because it manifested God’s ineffable love for the people and his burning desire to be intimately united to Israel….The New Testament explicitly applies this image to Christ, whose bride is the Church, as well as to each individual person. Even more, bride and Groom are to have one single voice.

“This is one of the most evocative images for the Fathers of the Church and clearly shows the purpose of the Incarnation…. Following the Jewish wedding  ritual, the Fathers characteristically distinguish a dual moment in the marriage of Christ: The first corresponds to the Incarnation, and the second to the Passion. In the first moment…Christ marries flesh or human nature; in the second, instead, he marries the Church. They are not two different marriages, but two moments in a single marriage. From his flesh, in fact, the Church emerges, is born, and becomes the Mystical Body of Christ. Thus he and she—his Humanity and the Church—‘are no longer two, but one flesh’ (Mt, 19:5-6).”

In other words, if any of us think that John’s account of the wedding at Cana is about the couple getting married, we need to think again.

I recently had a chance to talk with Larry and Kim Todd. Larry has been an HFI member for twelve years. Kim has been discerning God’s call in her life, too. Like an underground stream, Larry’s Pauline connection has been a major part of their life, especially in their personal and family relationship with God. Married for 36 years, they have two daughters, Christine (28) Lauren (22), who have been raised in their parents’ faith and share their values. Larry and Kim recently moved back to Lexington, KY, from Oregon, to be closer to their girls, who—Kim laughingly says—are taking full advantage of Mom and Dad’s unwanted absence and are now making up for lost time! They even occasionally hang around to listen in as Larry prepares for his ministry as parish lector and practices the reading.

They don’t see themselves “as especially religious or holy. We’re just happy to be with each other. Of course, we’re not seeing how other people see us, but nothing makes us stand out. We kind of blend into the parish.” Larry works as an engineer, testing electrical products for safety and conducting webinars on the company’s evaluation methods. He travels often for workshops and consultation assignments, so he and Kim don’t get to pray together very often, but they sometimes manage to fit in the Divine Office in the evening. It seems to have an effect beyond hearth and home. Larry noted, for example, that even though he has never expressed his distaste for profanity at work, his colleagues sense he doesn’t like it and they don’t use it around him. Even the VP watches his language.

Kim claims she doesn’t pray “nearly as much as Larry does,” but here and there fits in her favorite formula, the Guardian Angel prayer. “If I’m sitting somewhere, I test my memory to see if I can remember other prayers I learned in grade school, and it’s hard! Larry is more structured. I’m more spontaneous.” At the same time, she admits that in her spontaneity, she turns much of what she hears, good or bad, into brief, unformulated prayer for others.

This compatibility with ordinary life is what Larry appreciates in his Pauline commitment. He says, “I pray a lot more in five-second increments during the day. I see something going on, and I’ll throw out a short prayer for somebody. I have a little crucifix on my desk at work, and every time I see it I can interrupt what I’m doing for four or five seconds to thank Him for my job, or say, ‘What would you do in this case?’ It’s just a way to keep in touch with Jesus all day long.” When he has more time, especially on trips, he tracks down a church, prays the Divine Office or with the Pauline prayer book.  “I never thought I would have the time. But when something becomes important, the time is there. I now spend a little more time thinking about God when I might have been doing something else before.” He believes that this is the blessing for younger couples: “the Holy Family Institute gives them a focus.”

Christine and Lauren Todd
Kim supports him in this wholeheartedly. On his part, Larry relies on her “very valuable” support. She has seen him grow into “a more patient person. And I know he’s really driven and focused, to be true to it.” Larry adds that because of his Pauline vowed life, he has made “decisions in my career and my family to improve my family life,” like moving back to Kentucky. The short monthly letter that he writes to director Fr. Tom Fogarty, SSP, helps him to articulate his priorities, bringing “me closer to my family.” The specific nature of Pauline spirituality didn’t give him anything particularly new, but provided him with a measuring rod for whatever crosses his path. “When we test something at work, we ask, ‘What does the standard say?’ Other ways may be good, but they’re not for me.” Kim adds, “[Larry’s consecration] makes me more interested in my faith, and I know his prayers go far. He thinks enough about me and our marriage to pray for me, and I think it makes our marriage stronger.”

Kim drives a shuttle for a car dealership and covers about 125 miles of Lexington’s roads a day. She connects with the people she serves and even finds some to pray for. While Larry points to people like Fr. Tom as “guiding stars” on his faith journey, Kim sees many of these stars in the regular people and clergy she meets along the way. She know, too, that as Larry launches into his formation for the permanent diaconate, that constellation of hers will grow, since his journey will be made together. The world will never be the same.

To learn more about the Holy Family Institute:
Fr. Tom Fogarty, SSP,
* Epifania di Gesù Cristo, Fernando Maria Cornet, Editrice UNI Service,, pp. 41f.
Photo credits: Margaret J. Obrovac, FSP, Gerry Rauch, Larry Todd

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Pauline Discipleship Week

Lauren Renke (Michigan) shares an insight,
while Alyson Klimitchek (Texas) and
Gina O'Melia (New Jersey) listen.
A guest during vacation or holidays is nothing unusual, even in the convent. The company we keep, though, may be a little out of the ordinary. Over the past six days our Boston community has hosted the annual Pauline Discipleship Week, a retreat/live-in experience during the Christmas season for young women seriously considering religious life as Daughters of St. Paul. “The Holy Spirit has been active these days – both in the discerners and in the Sisters!” says Sr. Margaret Michael Gillis, the US/ESC province’s vocation director. Unlike our Come and See weekends throughout the U.S. and Canada, or our St. Paul Summer Program for teens, this intensive week opens up our own experience of the charism (the gift of the Holy Spirit that makes us Paulines) to young adults in deeper ways.

This year four women in their late teens and early twenties encountered this charism in interactive classes, extended times of prayer, work in the Pauline Books & Media publishing house, fun with the community, household chores, and a cultural excursion or two. Really—what other community would take a tour of Louisa May Alcott’s home and connect it with evangelization through the written word?

During a moment of prayer, co-foundress
Venerable Sr. Thecla Merlo (1894-1964) companions
these young disciples of Christ and St. Paul.
Why “Discipleship”? Anyone who has even occasionally read this blog gets the sense that Jesus Master, Way, Truth, and Life, is at the center of our spirituality. This approach of the whole person to the “whole” Christ, this following of Christ (discipleship), characterized St. Paul’s relationship with him, too. In fact, as Blessed James Alberione, our founder, often repeated, no one else understood the mind, will, and heart of Christ as Paul did. Paul, then, becomes our “in” with Christ Jesus and becomes a model for the women who consider joining us.

Since mission is both an outgrowth of this discipleship and one of the principal ways we live it, we like to include in the Week a few hours in the publishing house. When I first visited Boston as a prospective postulant, I thought it was the coolest thing to help out. It wasn’t frontline, but it was still meaningful: I knew I was preparing a feast for the Word that someone somewhere would be nourished on. Lauren caught that too. While she really got into the silent retreat over New Year’s Eve—she had never made a silent one before and felt that God graced her in a special way—she “loved the apostolate, working with the books,” and assembling introductory kits about J-Club, our Catholic school book fair program. Katie got to help out in our small Brazilian center; even though she doesn’t speak Portuguese, her Spanish stood her in good stead. They all went “quote hunting”: searching for usable quotations for Pauline Books & Media’s Facebook wall, and then prepared bookmarks for a new initiative, Mission One Million.

Sr. Margaret Michael

Sr. Margaret Michael has organized these events since 2003. She designed this “place of openness and listening,” as she calls it, to provide a deeper level experience for those who’ve attended any of our other programs, as well as to offer pre-entrance formation for the young women who want to apply for the postulancy later. Various sisters teach classes, mentor the participants in apostolic areas, and plan the evening social events. While certainly not all participants sign on, all those who’ve joined since the first one—eleven of us—have participated in this Discipleship Week.

Katie Endrey (Pennsylvania)
The silent retreat and daily Eucharistic adoration appealed to all of them, as did the length of their visit. Alyson noticed how on retreat, what usually distracts her from “thinking deeper things” wasn’t there. For Gina, the hour of adoration on New Year’s Eve beat out “Dick Clark’s Count-down Special.” She drily commented that it gave her “a bit more profound way of bringing in the New Year.” Unanimously, though, the 6:10 A.M. wake-up call was the hardest aspect of the whole week. Full days—sometimes a little too full, according to Katie—made for very short nights!

One thing that stood out for them was the prominence of Christ as Word in who we are, what we do, and even how we decorate our home. The connection between Word and Eucharist is equally strong: in our prayer, on the emblem around our necks, in our Pauline Books & Media Centers, even in the Gospel enthroned strategically in our common areas and the publishing house. Lauren, who loves the Liturgy of the Hours and prays it regularly, encountered the richness of the Word there, although she wishes we would use it more in our prayer than we do. Unlike other communities, the Daughters of St. Paul historically were not required to pray the Divine Office; the hour of adoration, our “school of the Divine Master” substituted for it. Since Vatican II, however, we have more often given it pride of place in our Morning and Evening Prayer, even though we still incorporate into it prayers bequeathed to us by our founder.

Gina shoots a little pool.
Evenings were lighter. The first night, “Meet and Greet” helped them break ice with the sisters and with each other. Board games and a viewing Of Gods and Men filled other evenings. Touring a portion of the Freedom Trail took them out on the town on New Year’s Day. This group was praying for snow—last year’s group got snowed in—but this time common sense prevailed up above. No cabin fever!

Alyson offers her perspective.
Levelheaded as they were, I asked them if they had any advice for other young women in discernment. Alyson recalled something Sr. Margaret Michael had said earlier: “It’s not about the doing; it’s about the being. Don’t worry about what you’re called to do. Focus on what you’re called to be.” Gina advises: “Get a good spiritual director. At retreats or conferences, if there’s a good speaker, it’s easy to get caught up in what they say and then forget to listen to your own heart. A director helps you do that.” Lauren cautions seekers not to limit their search to congregations’ and orders’ Web sites, but to visit communities, so they can “see the joy that religious sisters have. On some Web sites you can’t tell what they do or how they live.” A visit can be a real eye-opener.

Many Pauline Faithways readers want to keep informed about religious vocations among the Daughters. In fact, according to the blog’s “Stats” pages, the article about our postulants, “Irrepressible Life” (July 13, 2011), has consistently held first or second place among the most read posts published here. Many friends and donors contribute generously to our vocational discernment and formation programs, but there is always a need for additional funds to maintain and develop them. In fact, the St. Mary Seminary Outreach Trust Fund from Cleveland, Ohio, just issued a grant, so that our postulants can attend classes at the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles and earn an Advanced Certificate in Media Literacy Education. If you would like to make a donation to our Vocation Fund, too, click the red Donate Now button near the top of the right sidebar and follow the prompts. No gift is too small. God bless you, as you help to shape the future of religious life in North America!