Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Reaching the Ends of the Earth

On a Monday morning almost three weeks ago, Fr. Bob McMillan, SJ, one of our Boston chaplains, came to celebrate Mass. Toward the end of the General Intercessions, he said, “In this place of music, I would like to pray for Whitney Houston and her family….” We often tell media professionals that we pray for them. In fact, it’s an essential element of our spirituality, the legacy left to us by our founders.* So we felt right at home with a prayer like that. The beauty was that it extended our prayer for one artist beyond the needs of her earthly life, entrusting her, as Fr. Bob said, into the merciful arms of God.

Music director
Sr. Bridget C. Ellis, FSP
The prayer also connected her with both our liturgical song and our music ministry, which is a distinct feature of our Pauline mission here in North America. Of course, we reach a much smaller slice of the world than Whitney did, but this ministry weaves the gift of music with the gift of the Gospel and, in the same merciful arms of God, reaches into hearts in ways we can hardly imagine.

That same day, about 40 sisters and co-workers were able to participate in the blessing of our reconstituted “Pauline Studios.” The department recently added a renovated video studio next to the sound studio—which until then had boasted a mammoth staff of one—Sr. Bridget Ellis. She now has company: Sr. Domenica Vitello, a gifted video manager, and Sr. Teresa Meza, her experienced assistant. Sr. Margaret Timothy Sato, another star talent, serves as director. Her “to do” list includes collaborating with our business office, doing the spadework in pursuing rights to audio and video material. So, Sr. Bridget has been freed up to do what she does best: direct the music division. She also doubles as the go-to person for all things audio.

Here’s a lightly edited four-minute video of the blessing. Our friend, Fr. Robert Hospodar, a priest of the Byzantine-Ruthenian Catholic Church in New Jersey, did the honors. After a Byzantine ritual that lasted a good half-hour, the studios definitely felt blessed!

What exactly is new in all this? We began film production in the early 1970’s with shorts for children. In 1983 we moved into video, also transferring documentary films from other sources into VHS and Beta. (Remember those?) I recall how shocked I was at the price of Catholic educational videos back then. It was not unusual for a simple 30-minute program to command a princely sum of $125. Pauline’s unique contribution was to offer quality material at home video prices. Even so, fifty and sixty dollars was the going rate, so that made video rentals from our PBM centers an appealing service, just as it was at Blockbuster and later, at Hollywood Video.

In the late nineties, the industry had already advanced to such a degree that to grow, we would have needed new equipment to produce broadcast material. At a minimum of $10,000, an upgrade was cost prohibitive. In addition, we were not ready to jump into the latest rage—video games. A larger and more updated staff was required. A combination of other factors that also affected our development office necessitated that we shelve video ministry until it appeared that God was again pointing in that direction.

Probably the single most persuasive factor in re-launching our video production has been the advent of digital media. In a sense, its accessibility to anyone with a webcam and an Internet connection has democratized what once was the purview of a media elite. In addition, a wide range of media studies that include production is now within everyone’s reach, so that quality is not only possible, but expected.

Pauline Studios director,
Sr. Margaret Timothy Sato
If that can be part of the Church’s evangelizing effort, why not begin again? Sr. Timothy says that the team wants “to create and distribute quality productions that will communicate the Gospel in a way that speaks to the hearts of people today through sight and sound.” There will always be a need for books and other print publications, but Pauline Studios will help to interface those with visuals and sound, especially through e-readers and tablets like Kindle and Nook. In fact, as Pauline Books & Media expands its e-book catalogue beyond the 73 titles that it has already published, Pauline Studios is looking at ways to embed video and audio in the text, especially in children’s books. Audio-books and trailers for print publications are other ways we can round out what our mission has to offer.

It’s no surprise that the Way of the Cross is the most popular Lenten devotion in Catholic circles. So it stands to reason that a Way of the Cross pamphlet is a perennial best seller. What about a Stations app? If the Rosary app is any indication, iPhone lovers will welcome an alternative to the print medium. Word, music, and image will make for a reverent meditation that involves body and soul. Many more crossmedia products will communicate the Word in ways that people want to receive it. “Our work will both sustain the editorial department and support digital publishing,” predicts Sr. Timothy. “The apostolate is being painted in more vivid colors and underscored in beautiful ways.”

So, the ground is fertile for Sr. Bridget’s “tilling,” as she calls it—her talent at music composition, arrangement, and direction. She knows the “personality” of the sisters’ voices, so she writes the vocals. The music tracks are arranged by the prolific Dwayne Condon. Sr. Bridget requests the keys, modulations, and styles for any given recording, then suggests modifications on his rough draft.

Besides original pieces, she’s on the lookout for “any music out there that touches the hearts of people, bringing people to God and to the Church.” It’s always a special gift to her whenever she hears that, through the sisters’ music, someone has embraced the Catholic faith. “It’s going to affect everybody in a different way. The important thing is that they find in it a personal connection with God.” Next year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of our music ministry. Since Handmaiden of the Lord was produced in 1987, fifteen Daughters of St. Paul albums have received Angel Awards and five, Unity Awards, from the United Catholic Music and Video Association. As gratifying as these are, nothing comes close to the joy of touching a human heart. Sr. Bridget told me of a mastering engineer, who, without any prior contact with us, felt compelled to tell her of the “purity, innocence, and joy” that the Daughters of St. Paul Choir communicated to him as he listened. He could tell that the sisters saw their work as more than just a job.

Listen here.
 Who we are, in fact, does define what we do and how we share what is at the heart of our own vocation. The sisters hope to eventually coordinate projects with our vocation directors. Meanwhile, any of our audio and video promotion efforts can be a means through which young people will get at least a glimpse of the mission of the Daughters of St. Paul. For example, we’re videotaping a few short interviews of our sisters that will be used to promote There Can Be Miracles. “The stories of our sisters speak for themselves,” says Sr. Timothy, “how music has the power to convey a message of hope in a profound way. Besides that, the joy of our sisters in their commitment to the Pauline vocation is evident when you see them.” In quoting the Greek philosopher Plato, Sr. Bridget sees a common denominator in those experiences: “Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything. It is the essence of order and leads to all that is good, true, and beautiful.”

Possibilities are almost endless. A real plus in making a step forward is what Sr. Timothy describes as the 400% increase in personnel! The challenge will be to gallop alongside an art and industry that sprinted out of the starting gate thirty years ago and shows no signs yet of slowing down. The sisters’ ongoing education and broadening vision will require large doses of time and funding. Sr. Domenica senses the charismatic presence of Blessed James Alberione in this, urging us on to “get out there and preach the Gospel” with these media. It’s a sign of our times, she says, “that many people working in this field are feeling something similar. They want to use the media to get the Gospel message out. There’s so much creativity and desire in the world to do good.” Read the desire of Sr. Timothy’s heart at Weekly PauLine in the column above right.

Listen here.
For Sr. Bridget, keeping up really means keeping ahead. “It’s Lent, but believe it or not, I’m listening to Christmas music. My ears are constantly tuned to pick up new music, especially songs with meaning.” Collecting them can sometimes span a long period of time. There Can Be Miracles,  for example, took two years to compile. Everything we’ve recorded that’s in public domain is up on iTunes—85 titles—and we’re getting close to putting up everything we’ve done. “The way people listen to music and buy it is changing so fast. You and I are sitting here now talking about the way things are, and next year we could be talking abut something different. The challenge is to keep up with the way people are acquiring music and to be there to provide it.”

Pauline Studios may occupy a tiny corner of the globe, but the apostles who work there and their proclamation pour out into the world from the merciful arms of God, the “place” where possibility and reality intersect. They enlighten, encourage, and send peace far beyond the walls that house them and tell Good News that will echo in the minds and hearts even of those who still exist only in God’s mind. “Through all the earth their voice resounds, their message reaches to the ends of the earth” (Ps. 19:4).
* Blessed James Alberione, SSP, and our co-foundress, Sr. Thecla Merlo, FSP

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

How To Live Lent and Easter With Kids...and Love It

Read to Your Bunny
All of us love our children more than anything in the world. In their first years we feed them so they grow. We bring them to the doctor so they are healthy. We strap them in car seats so they are safe.
But the most important thing in the first years of life is the growth of the mind and spirit. This is when a child learns to love and trust, to speak and listen.
After a child turns two years old, these things are very difficult to learn or teach ever again. Trusting, singing, laughing, and language are the most important things in a young child’s life.
And so they must come first for mothers and fathers, too, because we can never have those years over again.
Every day, make a quiet, restful place for twenty minutes. Put your child in your lap and read a book aloud. In the pages of the book you will find a tiny vacation of privacy and intense love. It costs nothing but twenty minutes and a library card.
Reading to your little one is just like putting gold coins in the bank. It will pay you back tenfold. Your daughter will learn, and imagine, and be strong in herself. Your son will thrive, and give your love back forever.
Rosemary Wells

I first came across this lovely piece of advice about ten years ago, then posted it in the children’s corner of our Pauline Books & Media Center in San Francisco. Here and there I noticed people stop to take it in. Apparently Rosemary’s nudge to get a library card didn’t deter them from buying a book. After all, it’s hard to find our array of titles on faith and Christian values in your typical public library. Whether you buy or borrow, what she says about the indispensable role of parents (and grandparents!) in a child’s early learning can’t be emphasized enough, especially when a book about God’s love for us is included in the cuddling.

That story is easy to tell at Christmas. But during Lent? How do you get past the horror of the Crucifixion? Granted, boys and even some girls are not as squeamish as moms are about this, but the younger the child, the less graphic the story needs to be. Sometimes that will depend on what images they’ve already been exposed to in their churches and homes or what movies they’ve seen, or what they’ve encountered through their older siblings. In any case, you’ll want to reassure them that “Nobody does that anymore,” so that they feel safe.

How do you explain the tragedy of sin to a little person, who has no concept of it yet? Before reading, you may find it helpful to demonstrate the separation of sin to pre-schoolers by coaxing them to try and jump to you from an unreachable distance. Since only the cross can span that distance, the book you’re about to read to them will tell them how Jesus used the cross to do just that. Otherwise, you can let the story say whatever it does without the prep work.

1. Keep it simple. For infants and toddlers, once you find an appropriate book, it will be enough to hold it together and look at the pictures, reading a few words here and there to tell the basic story. Pre-schoolers will be able to understand more and will eventually want to “read” you the story in their own words. One of the best books I’ve ever seen for this purpose is PBM’s own The Road to Easter Day (picture at left). Pain in the illustrations is muted, and joyful colors are vibrant. Every page introduces the next part of the narrative, from Palm Sunday to Jesus’ appearance on the way to Emmaus, as another step “along the road, along the road, the road to Easter day,” conveying the sense that any sadness, while real, is not the end of the story. The Easter Swallows, with its talking animals and birds, creates a safer distance from the tragedy for those primary-age children who may be especially impressed by whatever graphic details they already know of Jesus’ passion.

2. Combine the story with an easy activity or craft. For older kids, The Stations of the Cross Coloring and Activity Book or My First Easter Sticker Book does the trick. The sticker book also simply and happily announces that, “Because Jesus loves us and died for our sins, heaven is open to all of us!” A children’s Bible book, such as My Storytime Bible, with its two-page spread of the Crucifixion and Resurrection, can contextualize that further, if needed.

One of the best activity books around, though, is The Lent-Easter Book—182 pages of stories, games, puzzles, recipes, and crafts that assist parents or teachers in passing on the season’s Catholic traditions…and the faith they express. This spiral-bound treasury also suggests ideas on holding conversations with five- to nine-year-olds and with ten- to fourteen-year-olds.

3. Allow books to teach our little ones to pray and live justly. Even though the cross, backlit by the resurrection, casts its shadow across all of Lent, this liturgical season isn’t just about the cross. Or better, during this reflective time, even children can find in the cross their own reasons for growing in prayer, virtue, and awareness of others’ needs. Books can help them do that.

Primary-age kids are keenly sensitive to the pain of Jesus, especially when they understand how he suffered to forgive and heal them and the whole world of their sins and the sins of others. With its simple, colorful pictures, I Pray the Stations of the Cross stirs their empathy for Jesus’ redemptive suffering and connects that empathy with compassion for others: “Jesus, Mary wanted to be near you, even though it made her sad to see you suffer. Please help me to comfort those in my family who are suffering” (Fourth Station). The Stations of the Cross in My Pocket is a pocket-size version of almost exactly the same text, with a more ornate art style.

Children’s Way of the Cross cleverly adapts for older kids St. Ignatius’s approach to Gospel meditation. It first leads them to imagine themselves right there with Jesus, then to listen to him by means of a passage from the International Children’s Bible, then finally to respond to his love with a sentence from a Psalm. Expressive pen and water color renderings bring the “via crucis” to life.

Of course, Lenten prayer would not be complete without the celebration of the sacraments. The Sacrament of Reconciliation in My Pocket is a pocket-size guide to celebrating the rite and includes an explanation of Reconciliation, a simple examen of conscience on the Ten Commandments, prayers, and a short glossary.

4. With school-age kids, especially with those who are aware that someone has died, any discussion of Jesus’ death can lead to questions about death in general: What happened to them? What will happen to me? What a great opportunity to share hugs and the central message of our faith! Because he rose again, Jesus’ death is a door, not a wall. His death changed death for us all. Because the Son of God, who is human like us, now physically lives by the power of the Holy Spirit, then we, his brothers and sisters who share in that same Spirit, will live forever, too (cf. Romans 8:11). A related kids’ title would be I Will Remember You: A Catholic Guide Through Grief.

If you would like more resources, updated almost daily, go to You'll find descriptions of PBM titles for kids, book guides, interviews with authors and illustrators, plus spiritual gems for parents and educators. Take a peek, too, behind the scenes at what goes into our kids' books.

For ways to share your finds with other families, look into J-Club, the only Catholic book fair for schools and religious education programs, that couples as a fundraiser.

Looking for something different? For centuries, many Christians trying to exonerate themselves from responsibility for Jesus’ death have pinned it on the Jews. Even after the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, the attitude dies hard. We recognize that “the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today” (n. 4). So PBM offers My Jewish Friend, a fictional account of two boys, one Catholic and the other Jewish, who explain their beliefs and rituals to each other, and so grow in their faith and in mutual respect.The narrative is vividly illustrated and masterfully interwoven with information about both Catholicism and Judaism.

Kids aren’t the only ones who try to figure out whose fault it is when something goes wrong. Yet, they’re less equipped than adults are to accept the unfairness of life without assigning blame. So how do you answer the blame question regarding Jesus’ death? If we can’t point fingers at the Romans or the Jews, what about at ourselves? While it’s true that had we not sinned, Jesus would not have died to forgive us. Even so, we could have sinned from our first breath until our last, and still we would not have caused Christ’s death. Love did that. His love. Christ “loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). All the books we’ve talked about here say that very thing in one way or another. There could be no greater story to read to your little Easter bunny.

Consultant for this week's blog post: Jamie Stuart Wolfe, assistant children's editor, Pauline Books & Media

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Toward a Strategy for Freedom

So we’ve been “accommodated,” have we? Buried under an avalanche of protest (the USCCB Web site records that 57,000 letters were sent to the administration from its campaign alone), the federal government is willing to exempt employers directly from providing contraceptives, sterilizations, and abortofacients to our employees, but will instead require the insurance companies we contract with to do our “work” for us.

Now, I don’t know about you, but that raises a number of questions in my mind:

1. Who pays the insurance companies? The employer? The employee? The U.S. government? Who pays the government?
In their Feb. 10 response to President Obama, the U.S. bishops stated: “The mandate would impose a burden of unprecedented reach and severity on the consciences of those who consider such ‘services’ immoral: insurers forced to write policies including this coverage; employers and schools forced to sponsor and subsidize the coverage; and individual employees and students forced to pay premiums for the coverage. We therefore urged HHS, if it insisted on keeping the mandate, to provide a conscience exemption for all of these stakeholders—not just the extremely small subset of ‘religious employers’ that HHS proposed to exempt initially.”

2. Does this accommodation extend also to for-profit employers who have personal, religious objections to the HHS mandate? If not, on what basis?

3. How does this affect self-insured institutions?
To quote the bishops’ statement again: “[W]e note at the outset that the lack of clear protection for key stakeholders—for self-insured religious employers; for religious and secular for-profit employers; for secular non-profit employers; for religious insurers; and for individuals—is unacceptable and must be corrected.”

4. Who decides who qualifies as a religious, and therefore exempt, institution?
This last question reveals perhaps the most insidious aspect of this issue. In many European countries, religions and religious institutions are licensed as social organizations and so, exist, assemble, and act as such only with the permission of the State. The U.S. is radically different. Since the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1787, they have been seen as autonomous, that is, independent of the State. Those who drafted the Constitution viewed religion as “wholly exempt” from civil governance. This is precisely what is under attack in the present controversy.

Can this issue keep producing the steam that will move the rights of all Americans forward? The following points are not exactly a strategy, but they can still provide insight for those who might map one out.

Not just in-house
We would best avoid the mistake many of us made with Roe v. Wade. This is not an exclusively Catholic issue, but one that radically strikes at how religious institutions of any persuasion can minister freely. Many will try to marginalize us over this, but it is up to us to untiringly cast it in ecumenical and interreligious terms.

USA Today published an editorial making this very point, and in fact broadened its scope by setting it as a civil rights issue, irrespective of religious affiliation. One Internet commentator on the article stated that if the government can trample on the rights “of those we don’t like,” imagine what it could do to the rest of us! When I stopped laughing, I admitted that not only is it not illegal to despise people of faith, but her point was well made: Sooner or later this issue will affect us all.

Along with the U.S. bishops, the official organizations of Evangelicals, Orthodox Jews, Lutherans of the Missouri Synod, and Orthodox Bishops have already spoken up on behalf of America’s religious institutions. If this revolved around security legislation, for example, requiring Muslim employers to fingerprint job applicants and run background checks on them, those who are hotly defending the administration’s latest infringement on religious freedom would be the first to cry foul, regardless of religious or partisan preferences. Come to think of it, has anybody heard how the ACLU stands on the ruling?

For a “parable” on religious freedom and civil rights, see Sr. Anne Flanagan’s Nunblog. 

What’s in a name?
We need to maintain that it is a matter, not of women’s health or reproductive rights, but as it in fact is—a matter of the right to the free exercise of religion. The media are already calling it a “contraception rule” and “birth control mandate”; we should not. If people perceive that this issue is about women’s rights, we could lose vital support even among Catholics. “HHS mandate” or “health care mandate” has a better chance of uniting us, regardless of where people stand on birth control. Yes, it would be great if we were all on the same page doctrinally, but we’re not, and to garner support from all believers of whatever religious affiliation, we would do well to emphasize respect for our First Amendment rights.

In addition, by not limiting it to birth control, the far-reaching effects of the administration’s coercive ruling become more apparent. If it remains, it will set a precedent for other controversial issues in the public square and for the educational requirements expected of religious schools: euthanasia, gay “marriage,” legitimizing prostitution, the pastoral care of undocumented immigrants….That’s just for starters.

Nor is it only a matter of freedom of conscience apart from the First Amendment. Our refuge is in our insistence on our Constitutional right to freedom of religion and freedom of speech.

Legal exemption
We shouldn’t allow the administration and the media to portray us as unreasonable because we’re inflexible about protecting our rights as Americans who also happen to be people with faith convictions. To toss us in the corner with the so-called “religious right” would be a caricature, that justifies dismissing us and our concerns. As Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan said in an interview with NCR’s Vatican correspondent John Allen, the bishops are not “Obama haters.”

We Catholic employers want to be left free to determine what insurance coverage we offer to our employees, who, by the way, work with us by their choice. The present administration has now mandated that we include coverage of what is repugnant to us. Who is imposing views and beliefs on whom? (See a superb op-ed column in USA Today by Richard Garnett of Notre Dame University.) As USCCB media relations director Sr. Mary Ann Walsh acidly remarked, “When you go to a Jewish deli, you are not expecting pork chops.”

The bishops point out that we will apply for a legal exemption if the federal government will not rescind the mandate. Ask President Obama: As a Constitutional law professor, he knows that this is routinely done. The latest one was the recent Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC case. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court, basing itself on a legal doctrine known as the “ministerial exception,” recognized the right of religious organizations to hire and fire their clergy and other employees without government intrusion. Churches are exempt from these laws that apply in the secular workplace.

Civil discourse
We would be well advised not couch this in terms of “defending the Church,” even though we may take justifiable pride as we speak out on her behalf. Allowing ourselves to be put on the defensive is no way to arrive at truth and right. Besides, polemics are distasteful to many; look at voters’ attitude toward mudslinging in politics.

I don’t normally read comments to articles or blogs. I’ve made an exception here. Facebook also gives me a taste of how people are reacting. My sense as I read comments is that Catholics are tired of being pummeled in the arena. Some are spoiling for a fight. The temptation is to lash out in kind. I notice passion among believers, but most are avoiding the ignorant accusations and unjustified vitriol spewed by others who either misunderstand or disagree with the objections of people of faith. A helpful, almost cheery, insight in this regard can be found in the NCR interview I already mentioned. Timothy Dolan soberly acknowledged the tenuous nature of our current relationship with President Obama’s administration, but his basic message seemed to be: Debate, argue, protest, object, but for as long as we can, let’s not fight.

Saber rattling may be more romantic than non-violence, but if we can achieve the same results without verbal abuse, we’ll have a chance at becoming the disciples of Christ we claim to be. Let’s not stoop to the level of those who don’t know the meaning of respect. This is not a time to be “clever,” but faithful and responsible citizens.

Keeping it central
Fortuitously this firestorm didn’t originate with us; we’re responding to a federal mandate. If we can keep the controversy and its solutions on that level, either through legislation and/or a Supreme Court decision, a more unified and effective effort is likely. There’s strength in numbers. If it’s left to the states to decide, the “militant secularist” agenda (Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon’s description) will have a greater chance to prevail. No statewide conferences of Catholic bishops have the resources or prestige of the USCCB to mount a sustained opposition to violation after violation of First Amendment rights.

“We will therefore continue—with no less vigor, no less sense of urgency—our efforts to correct this problem through the other two branches of government. For example, we renew our call on Congress to pass, and the Administration to sign, the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act. And we renew our call to the Catholic faithful, and to all our fellow Americans, to join together in this effort to protect religious liberty and freedom of conscience for all” (USCCB statement of Feb. 10).

“Carpe diem”
How many people are actually concerned about this? Are we in fact the sleeping giant that one article described? At best, people worry about other things like keeping their jobs and getting their kids through college. At worst, they can be apathetic. Religious liberty just isn’t on their radar screen. Sure, they say, let the bishops worry about it; that’s their job.

One lesson we can draw from this is that, when organized and committed, we can make a difference. We don’t have to take what’s dished out to us. Taking our cue from the bishops and working with other organizations, churches, and congregations will give us a unified voice.

Another benefit, if we have the eyes to see is the opportunity to hold the kind of conversation we as a people need to have about the separation of Church and State and the religious presence in political life. It’s long overdue. In his article just published in America magazine, “Finding Common Ground: The opportunity in a painful moment,” Blase J. Cupich, the bishop of Spokane, WA, makes this very point. Not only could such a conversation bridge differences, but more fundamentally, it would help us to clarify for ourselves what it is that our freedoms are built on and to delineate the role of religion in the public arena.

“Keeping religion out of politics is an impossible condition. All political entities are either based upon faith-based religion or a secular religion, usually with the State or Leader as godhead. Removing faith-based religion ends up with a secular religion, and vice-versa....[P]olitics cannot escape the human condition. There will always be some form of religion in politics. Some form of balance between the two competing religious ideals must be achieved for a liberal society; any attempt to eradicate one or both will result in a totalitarian polity” (Micah Haber on Peter Redpath’s Facebook wall, 2/11/2012).

The call to conversion
In the coming election—in any election, for that matter—the economy is not the #1 factor to consider. Human life and all that supports its dignity comes first. We need to grow in our trust in God, as the money we handle reminds us. The conversion to trust means marshalling the creativity, energy, and resources we have at hand to better our human condition, knowing, however, that in the end, we put God’s law first. It means not being arrogant about what we’ve achieved, shedding the attitude of entitlement that makes us rebel against adversity or sacrifice. God does not owe us. The world does not owe us: If we have not obliterated global hunger and disease, or achieved international peace, or preserved the earth’s resources for future generations, then the world definitely does not owe us.

Prayer is essential if we are to maintain our priorities. If we want to succeed at changing anything, nothing can be done without the grace of God that comes through prayer and fasting, whether from food or from “following our own pursuits” as the prophet Isaiah put it. We may rightly feel that this is a David and Goliath undertaking, but that we’re consigned to simply watch from the sidelines. Nothing could be further from the truth. Can we take just a few minutes to send government a message? Now? Then keep abreast of events as they develop. And keep your friends informed! Without being “in their face,” share what you come across. Their openness may surprise you.

Click here in support of the bishops’ campaign urging Congress to pass the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act, H.R. 1179 and S. 1467.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


Coffee break's over,
Sr. Mark. It's chili time! 
On Superbowl Sunday, like many other people here in Boston, the Daughters of St. Paul expected to watch the Patriots carry the ball to victory. Sr. Domenica and Sr. Margaret Timothy set up the visual and sound system in Cushing Hall, Sr. Martha prepared enough enchiladas for two Superbowls, while Sr. David helped her sister, Sr. Mark, to serve up her famous chili. Sr. Joan took up a collection in the community to buy the essential chips and guacamole. We even rearranged the afternoon schedule to accommodate the 6:30 kick-off. Some sisters came for the game, some for the food, and others, like Sister Bernadette, ’fessed up to coming for the commercials. (With at least some of us, ads with babies and polar bears scored high.)

Feb. 5 was also a special Sunday for Daughters of St. Paul the world over. We marked forty-eight years since our co-foundress, Venerable Mother Thecla Merlo (1894-1964) won her own personal victory and entered into eternal glory. Born in Castagnito, Italy, not far from Turin, she later collaborated with Blessed James Alberione in giving birth to not only the Daughters of St. Paul, but to the other three feminine congregations and secular branches of the Pauline Family. Before sending his men to the foreign missions, he sent them to her, to supply them with what she could for their immediate needs. With him she endured the privations, contradictions, and misunderstandings that seem to be the lot of founders. With him she praised God’s tender care and celebrated every step in the Family’s growth. She circled the globe four times, rejoicing in the good the God was doing in and through her Daughters, and urging them on to great holiness and great initiative in the mission. “It will do good” was her motivation for risking any initiative in that mission. For a glimpse of the early days of her story and ours click here to go to a blog post from last June.

In front of the second FSP building to go up in Boston.
Sr. Paula Cordero is second from left; M. Thecla is
third from right.
I joined the Daughters only nine years after her death, and her spirit was very much alive within the walls of the novitiate house here. She was not only “Prima Maestra,” (“First Teacher”), a title that Fr. Alberione gave her and that every one of her Daughters acknowledged. Because of Sr. Paula Cordero’s leadership in the U.S., she was “Saintly Prima Maestra,” though no one would have addressed her that way to her face. The title reflected her priorities and her legacy.

As early as 1931 she had resolved to “seek only the glory of God, the Blessed Trinity, and peace to all people.” On the feast of the Blessed Trinity in 1961 she formalized it and included us in her gift to God by making an offering of her life “for the entire congregation of the Daughters of St. Paul so that everyone may become saints.” The following Christmas, she made her gift known to her sisters: “I write these things to you not only with the pen, but also with my heart. I wish you all to be saints: for this I have offered my life—for everyone, that we may achieve the holiness God wants of us.”

Nor were the Daughters her only concern! On a visit to the U.S. only 18 months before her death, she said to our community:
“Do you want to be saints? Seriously—great saints. The Lord gives the graces for this. This nation needs saints, and I always ask the Lord to give saints to the United States....from among the Americans. So that no one can say, ‘Oh, these saints are imported,’ they must be from this place, from this place! The United States has a lot of things and has made a lot of progress, but it especially needs saints. Women and men saints, no? And when it has this, it will have everything. The Lord gives you the graces, rest assured. Keep up your courage, never get discouraged, always go forward, day by day taking up the cross….”
Prima Maestra Thecla loved everyone, but she was especially fond of the U.S. and grateful to the people here who had been generous with our communities all over the world. Americans supplied life’s necessities for them wherever they had been ravaged by the Second World War. Then they donated toward the construction of the Queen of Apostles Basilica in Rome—fulfillment of Fr. Alberione’s vow to Mary for having protected his Pauline sons and daughters. In 1955 Cardinal Cushing gave us permission to come to Boston so we could grow, and then throughout the fifties and sixties, sent personal contributions to Mother Thecla for the construction of our hospital outside Rome. The list goes on and on….

Now it seems to be payback time. Always a mother, always concerned about what worried her children, she still comes to the rescue, helping them to do what they can and picking up the slack when they can’t. Here are some testimonies:
“I have a prayer card that has to be years old. I started saying the prayer to Mother Thecla. About four months ago I made requests to lose weight. I lost 76 lbs. I prayed for my daughter, who has been an alcoholic and lately on drugs. She went into rehab within 2 weeks. She never went to church. Now she goes on Sunday and signed up her kids in a Christian academy. I prayed for my son-in-law to quit drinking. Four months later, he is in A.A. I prayed for my son’s back; it got well. A house on our street was on sale for two years. I put it on the prayer list. It sold two days later” (OH, August 2007). 
“You cannot believe the special favors received by people I’ve given Mother Thecla’s medal and prayer card to over the years.  People who could not have children are now parents. Several who have cancer are doing well. People who lost jobs are now employed. Those who lost loved ones have found a purpose through her. I hope I will see the day when she is made a saint” (NJ, December 2006).

“My daughter, Diane, had lupus. On June 29, 1987, Diane was rushed to the hospital, and they gave her only four hours to live. A heart specialist appeared and began working on her….Hours passed. As I stood there, helplessly leaning against the door, I began praying to Mother Thecla.
“The doctors pulled Diane through. After two months in the hospital she was able to return home. She later confided to me that she kept seeing three people near her bed—her grandmother, St. Anne, and a nun dressed in black. My daughter lived another ten years” (C.B., December 2008, paraphrased from a phone conversation).
“I want to thank you so very much for sending me the prayer cards of Mother Thecla Merlo. I can’t begin to tell you the stories of favors and graces granted to all those who placed their trust in her. These were not only Catholics, but people of all religions.
“There was a man who knew he was dying and couldn’t accept it. After receiving the medal, he went back to work for a while, got his life in order, and was ready to accept his destiny. A woman is singing Mother Thecla’s praises after her cancer went into remission. I’m privileged to be able to spread the word about her graces and favors. I hope she becomes a saint during my lifetime...” (NJ, January 2010).
“I am a priest suffering from recurring sciatica, which at times almost incapacitates me.
“One morning when I awoke, I could hardly stand upright. I prayed to God and invoked Mother Thecla Merlo, asking that I be relieved of the sciatica long enough to celebrate the Mass. Within minutes the affliction passed off and I went to celebrate and preach.
“I returned home and within an hour the sciatica returned and ran its usual course” (J.D., MA).

If you would like a free prayer card and a medal of Mother Thecla, send me a self-addressed, stamped envelope at:
Sr. Margaret J. Obrovac, FSP
50 St. Paul’s Ave.
Boston, MA  02130
You can also ask to receive gratis our annual newsletter about Mother Thecla. Otherwise, you will not be placed on any mailing list.

“Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one” (1Cor. 9:25). Touchdown!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

“Bye, Happy Nuns!”

Sister Emily Beata Marsh pronounces
her first vows, Jan. 28, 2012.
What do you say when the firstborn in your brood of twelve tells you she wants to be a sister? John and Ruth Marsh of Bemus Point, NY, near Buffalo, were not at all surprised when 20-year-old Emily announced just that. She wanted to be a Daughter of St. Paul. Nine years before, she had confided to her mother, “I don’t think the married life is for me.” Apparently she wasn’t deterred by the rough and tumble that comes with a houseful of kids. Emily dated, but felt drawn to something different. Last week she told me simply, “I wanted to give my life to God, and in this place, in this congregation, I found the way to give my life totally.”

There aren’t any sisters living or serving near Bemus Point—population 364—so the kids’ exposure to religious life comes from reading lives of the saints. Emily’s first contact with a real live sister was FSP vocation director Sr. Margaret Michael Gillis, whom she met at a youth conference in 2000. Three years later she was introduced to our community when she visited our mother house in Boston for the weeklong St. Paul Summer Program. When you ask her what it was about this introduction that convinced her to keep walking with us along the road of her discernment, she smiles. “I saw the sisters praying with joy,” she recalls. “They had a relationship with Jesus. At table and at recreation they were very joyful and normal. That visit helped me to know Jesus and myself, what I wanted. I asked myself, Who is Jesus? What type of relationship do I have with Jesus? And after that I wanted more.”

Like life in a large family—“all boys except nine,” as John describes it—the religious life option was in the air Emily breathed. “When we talked about what they might do when they grew up,” Ruth says of her brood, “I listed things: doctor, janitor, religious. All of these were of equal worth.” John adds, “We had a priest who was good about suggesting to young people that they at least think about it. We just wanted them to work hard to reach their potential. It was important that we let her know it was OK.”

While John was raised Catholic, Ruth’s religious upbringing was more checkered. Her mother died when Ruth was on the threshold of adolescence, and the more her father told her she didn’t have to go to Mass, the more she went, “more out of rebellion than anything.” When she met her future husband at college, they both knew that a vibrant faith-life would mark whatever future they would make together.

Youthful looking Ruth smiles at far left, and John proudly stands behind Sr. Emily.
As if housing and feeding a large family weren’t challenge enough, John and Ruth decided to tackle the demands of educating them at home. Ruth wryly confesses, “I guess I have an overconfidence problem.” Despite Ruth’s degree in education, they knew they would still have to work hard to build a close knit family. “We wanted to raise our children, says Ruth. “I had read that children spend 80 % of their time with their peers and 20% with their family, and I wanted that switched.” John points out that Blessed John Paul II reminded parents that they are “the primary educators of their children.” On his part, his small grocery store also factors into that project. Every one of his kids learns to work the register, scoop ice cream (I didn’t ask him which was the more coveted position), and clean up. John said that he was rifling through a pile of old clutter recently when he chanced upon a note that young Emily had penned: “Dear Daddy, I wonder if you could tell me ways to be a better employee.”

Ruth exclaims, “Emily was such an easy baby, she tricked us into thinking we wanted more!” Obviously they haven’t been disappointed by subsequent arrivals; in our conversation I didn’t hear either of them say, “Enough already!” They admit that everyday, anywhere they go, they get comments about the number of their offspring… “not always negative,” says Ruth. John claims it’s “a conversation starter,” and Ruth adds, “Yes, and in deciding to go out or not, I have to ask myself, Am I ready for the conversation today?”

Younger sister Molly cantors at the
Sr. Emily's profession liturgy.
Molly married last year.
Prayer is a vital part of her family’s life and of the contact the kids have with groups of other homeschoolers. You can imagine how hard it is to fit in even the most routine of prayer times in a household like this. John admits that sometimes they’re constrained to limit night prayer to the “power pack of an Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be, especially during the summer.” This is when you know God takes the lead in the dialogue and keeps an ear cocked for the next time any of them checks in. He’s making their family a “school of prayer,” one that plants the seeds of whatever vocations spring up among them.

Being homeschooled prepared Emily to evangelize when at 16, she and a boy her age team-taught—and wowed—a religious education class in her parish. Today she’s able to articulate what she picked up from that experience and relate it to her current mission. Her two favorite aspects of this mission are direct contact with people and working now as co-children’s editor at Pauline Books & Media. “I really like it, because I think of the children reading our books and of this influence on their lives. I have eight sisters and three brothers, so this apostolate is very close to my heart!” Still, she’s not tied to any one ministry within the mission. “The apostolate is to communicate Jesus. I offer Jesus to this person [in what I do]. It doesn’t matter what work I do, because I can be in communication with Jesus.”

You would think that growing up with your own baseball team, it would be an easy slide into community. As inspiring as community living is to Emily, it’s also the most difficult aspect of religious life for her. Novitiate, the period of formation that culminates in the first profession of vows, “is a time to learn how to be myself and give myself, but this process is not comfortable!” What helped her rise to the challenge was “the belief that this is my place and also the belief that all the sisters are trying their best.” But will that be enough for her going forward? “We read a lot of beautiful things about this life. It is beautiful and can be. Then life happens, and what I read comes to mind. I had a hard time [initially] putting that together. But what helped me was the conviction that I belong in community and that I want to be in community even when it’s difficult.”

Mom and Dad had their own version of the Community Challenge. While Ruth didn’t feel it was “any more difficult than her going to school or getting married, when we took her to St. Louis,* that was the hardest part. I felt the need to communicate in some way: an e-mail or a letter. Then she told us we could call. I was glad, but I knew we shouldn’t be holding her back.”

Emily felt the separation too. “The youngest was four months old when I entered. It was hard to leave, because I wouldn’t see them growing up. But I find myself involved in their lives in ways I wouldn’t have been otherwise. For example, my brother James just got accepted into the seminary, so he shared that journey with me. Discernment has made us close, even though I don’t share his everyday life. It’s been a consolation that the relationship has still developed.”

Co-novice Sylwia Skonieczna
returned to Poland where she will
profess her vows on Feb. 5.
Novice director Sr. Carmen Christi
Pompei rejoices in both of them.
I asked John and Ruth how they might explain such a decision and encourage such a life to parents who may be Christian, but who espouse a very different set of values and would never consider offering their flesh and blood to God in this way. They reflected a few moments and then tripped over each other to answer: “As parents, your goal is to raise a child to be an independent adult. You hope, too, that they’re happy and at peace with the life they choose. It’s hard to explain this kind of decision to someone who holds different values, because ultimately you have to give them back to God. The vow of poverty is a stumbling block for people without faith. They don’t realize that God takes care of you. Look around here. It’s warm, safe, and comfortable. And you have freedom from the worry that comes from excess.”

“Excess” is the operative word here. Worry about making ends meet is something we share with most of our contemporaries. The sister who pays the bills is just as bound by the vow and spirit of poverty as newly professed Sr. Emily Beata. But it’s the trust factor that’s important. Trust keeps us attentive to finances and things at our disposal, but it also keeps us from worrying ourselves sick. It comes from the faith-conviction that sees beyond the value of visible creation and its tangible goods and knows that the best is yet to come.

Maybe that’s what four-year-old Kenny intuited when he looked up at his sister on her profession day and beamed, “You’re a happy nun!” And then, just as he was leaving, he called out the sentiments of his family to the few who chanced being near, “Bye, happy nuns!”

* For postulancy, or the first two years of formation