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.