Aged To Perfection

John XXIIIToday Fr. Chuck returns to Houston for three weeks then its off to Maryland again until January.  It will be good to have my old friend back.  Fr. Chuck and I have been friends ever since he came to Texas in 2002 and I feel rather bereft when he is away.  When I refer to Fr. Chuck as “old” I do not infer “elderly” rather, I use it as a term of endearment.  “Old” is not derogatory although some may connote it as such.  Of late, I find myself remembering  St. John XXIII whenever someone is dismissed or discounted simply because they are “old”.

Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was 77 years old when he was elected Pope; an age when most are inclined towards retirement if not already there.  Taking the name, “John XXIII”, he was the oldest Pope to be elected in more than 200 years.  After the whirlwind pontificate of Pope Pius XII, the Cardinal electors thought Roncalli would be a simple Pope, one who would slow down the Church and be a Pope of transition— instead they introduced a revolutionary.  He could have been content with just blessing people and having a few ceremonies in St. Peter’s but instead he surprised a group of 17 cardinals on January 25, 1959 when he announced that he intended to convene an ecumenical council.  “Trembling with emotion and yet with humble resolution” he said, “we put before you the proposal of a double celebration: a diocesan synod for Rome and an ecumenical council for the universal Church.  I would like to have your advice.”

The cardinals simply stared at him without a word. There were a number of reasons for this.  Some of the cardinals were shocked that a Pope whom many saw as merely a “transitional” figure, holding down the fort, as it were, until a more dynamic Church leader might come along, was proposing something so monumental.  After all, there were only twenty such councils in Church history; the last had been the First Vatican Council (so called because it took place within the Vatican) in 1870.

But the main reason that the cardinals withheld their approval was that they were members of the Roman Curia. The Curia—curia from the Latin word for “court” – is the administrative arm of the Holy See.  They run the departments, or congregations, of the Church on behalf of the Pope.  Pontiffs came and went but the Curia lived on. They had a vested interest in protecting the status quo.  Now, here was this elderly Pope, only three months into his pontificate, and he was acting in an entirely unexpected way—at least to them.

The other thing unsettling the cardinals was that in the past, the great councils had been called to condemn heresy but what John was proposing was a pastoral council, a council in which no heresy would be expunged, no dogma reasserted, rather it would be an “updating”, aggiornamento, of the Church.

As the council was announced to the whole world a flame of enthusiasm swept over the entire Church.  “This holy old boy”, wrote Cardinal Montini, “ understood immediately, perhaps by inspiration, that by calling a council he would release unparalleled vital forces in the Church.”

The third of 13 surviving children born on November 25, 1881 to a family of farmers in the tiny village of Sotto il Monte in the region of Bergamo in northern Italy, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was always proud of his down-to-earth roots.  Even after he became Pope he eschewed the trappings of his position and refused to take advantage of it either for himself or his family.  He left his personal “fortune” to the surviving members of his family  – they each received less than $20.

When Roncalli entered the major seminary in 1895, the fourteen year old began to keep a journal upon the advice of the school’s spiritual director, Canon Luigi Isacchi. The journal, kept in a series of black academic notebooks with stiff covers, was a way to stay in touch with his spiritual goals.  He would continue this practice for the rest of his life, ending up with thirty-eight notebooks and folders which were published after his death in the volume titled, Journal of a Soul.

Pope John, stout as he was, sat lightly upon the papal throne at exactly the moment when such a position would be critical for the very survival of the Catholic Church in a brave new world.  Setting the tone for his successors, he moved the Church in a new direction in its relationship to Jews and to non-Catholic Christians and to a whole new attitude on the part of clergy, the hierarchy and the laity.  Pope John XXIII stood with his feet planted firmly in the swiftly flowing river of history and helped the Church move safely from one bank to the other without being swept away by the raging currents beneath.

John did not get to see his Council to the end.  He died of stomach cancer on June 3, 1963.  He had been Pope for just under five years but accomplished an extraordinary amount.  In his moment of history, Pope John stood at the pinnacle of an ancient religious hierarchy during an era of secularism and ideological conflict.  With both a prayerful humility and an iron will, he moved a massive institution toward a more open relationship and engagement with the world.  Unblinking and with a smile, he sought to reform and reclaim his cherished Church.

Anyone who associates aging with dysfunction does not know the story of St. John XXIII and so many others like him—and among us.  In a partisan culture such as ours there is no shortage of “divisions”: religious and secular, the ninety –nine percent and the one percent, red America/blue America and young vs. old.  Sitting on my desk is a paperweight with a quote from Abraham Lincoln which reads: “And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count, it’s the life in your years.” I picked this up for myself and derive inspiration and courage from it to challenge those ready to marginalize people simply because of advancing years.  And when I look at an image of St. John XXIII, I can imagine him saying to the world: “You ain’t seeing nothing yet!”



Double Vision: Seeing the Extraordinary in the Ordinary

Seeing the ExtraordinaryA couple of weeks ago I was setting up for a training session for new EMs (Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion).  Needing a chalice, paten and communion cup for demonstration, I went to the drawer where the key to the cabinet which houses the vessels is kept but it was not there.  I looked in the other drawers and unlocked cabinets but still did not find it.  I had earlier greeted one of our sacristans, Jean, who was setting up for the Novena in the Ars Chapel so I went to find her to see if perhaps she had the key.  She did not but returned with me to the sacristy to search.  And search we did; she retraced all her steps and opened the drawers and cabinets she had accessed but again, to no avail.  We returned to the Ars Chapel to empty her handbag, suggesting that perhaps she had inadvertently dropped it in however, she had not. We returned to the Church and retraced her steps at least 3 times but still did not obtain the lost key.  We were rehearsing yet again, her actions in the sacristy and angsting about the misplaced key when, low and behold, it fell on the floor before us.  We had just been retracing the sacristan’s steps; one of them had been to replenish the hand towels with the freshly laundered ones and there it was, the key apparently had slipped in between the towels which we had examined 3 times before!  When the key fell before us we both paused in astonishment.  I said to the sacristan, “Jean, God is so good.”

Something so seemingly insignificant as this may have been dismissed as simply, “good luck” but I knew it was more than that.  Yes, God was looking out for us but more importantly, for those whom he had called to serve in a very important ministry. Their service and training for it, would not be thwarted.

How often does God reach down and show his presence to us yet we fail to recognize him?  St. Benedict, the Father of Western Monasticism, believed that “the encounter with God ought not be rare, because one should see God regularly and easily.”  “All you need to do”, he wrote, “is open your eyes; God is not absent from our world.”

We, as Catholics, approach the world with a sense of something more than which appears before us.  As we tend to our everyday tasks we view them sacramentally, as pointing to a greater reality.  This approach opens up a world in which nothing is too common to be exalted; everyday experiences hold the possibility of revelation.  This view of life must be focused or we risk losing or being blinded to the extraordinary in our midst. We, like the disciples on the way to Emmaus, may fail to recognize that Christ is in fact, alongside us.

Perhaps the first step is that we should sincerely desire to unearth God in our midst, for letting heaven break through will not happen automatically.  It lies at hand, but needs a determination on our part to realize it.  If we can recover this “double” vision, then we are able to transform what lies at hand and allow the mundane to become the edge of glory and “see” the extraordinary in the ordinary.

At times God may be encountered in the experience of absence.  Experiences of broken relationships, stress, burnout, frustration and hopelessness are a particular challenge to faith and too often our ability to view our world as a sacrament of divine mystery is weakened.  But the invitation remains for each of us to persevere and to grow in our trust in God’s desire to be lovingly present to us in all circumstances.

The biblical phrase, “If today you hear his voice..” (Hebrews 3:7) implies that the divine voice is accessible in our daily experience.  If we are to listen for the God who creates and sustains us, we need to take seriously and prayerfully the meeting between the creatures we are and all else that God holds in loving existence. This interface is the lived experience of our days.  It deserves prayerful attention and is a big part of how we know and respond to God.

I am reminded of the story of a young musician from a small city who traveled to New York City.  She was mesmerized by all the cars, buildings and people and very anxious about her upcoming audition.  As she emerged from the subway she felt disoriented.  She knew her destination was nearby but in which direction? Then, to her relief, she saw an elderly man coming toward her with a violin case tucked under his arm. Ah, he must surely know, she thought, so she inquired, “Excuse me sir, can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?”  The old musician halted, looked pensive for a moment, and then offered, “Practice, practice, practice!”  We can say the same about our faith; being any good at it requires lots of practice.  Perseverance in faith is the best evidence of the sincerity of our faith.

What Jean and I experienced that evening when the keys “dropped from heaven” was the determination of God’s in-breaking into our midst.  What an awesome gift that was.  And like all gifts, one to be shared so that all may delight in its beauty.  If we look closely we will be able to find God in the ordinary of our lives; in fact we might be looking at  – but failing to recognize him  – each day.

  Earth’s crammed with heaven,

and every common bush afire with God;

But only he who sees, takes off his shoes-

The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries,

And daub their natural faces unaware……

Elizabeth Barrett Browning



Monica and AugustineEach time my son leaves the house he hugs and kisses me and says, “See you, mom; I love you.”  With those words he melts away my frustration at the mess he is usually leaving behind and at the same time those precious words demand that I worry about him: will he remember to wear his seat belt; will he talk on his cell phone while driving; what friends will he be with; what will they do; what will they not do; and on and on my imagination leaps.  Once aware of the knots forming in my stomach I remind myself that he is no longer a child, can be responsible and then say a prayer asking God to keep a firm hand on him. When the hour grows late I rekindle my petition and too tired to pray an entire rosary, will often simply hold it in my hand or place it over my heart as if by osmosis, the prayers will enter and God will hear them.  I try very hard to forget what a good friend told me his dad told him: “nothing good happens after midnight!”

This, to a small degree, may be what St. Monica felt when she prayed for her son, Augustine. This week we remember both: On August 27, one day before the feast of her son, St. Augustine, the Church honors St. Monica, whose example and persistent prayers led to one of the most dramatic conversions in Church history.

Most of what we know about St. Monica is the account that Augustine gives of her in his Confessions. Monica was born in 332 in the North African city of Tagaste, what is now Algeria.  Educated by a household servant, Monica cared for her father and siblings until she married Patricius, a landowner and minor Roman official.  Patricius was a pagan, though like so many of that period, his religion was no more than a name.  He was an arrogant man, whose temper was violent and habits immoral.

Monica and Patricius had three children who survived infancy: Augustine, the eldest, Navigius, and a daughter, Perpetua. Monica was unable to persuade her husband to allow the children to be baptized and became greatly concerned when a very young Augustine feel ill.  Succumbing to his wife’s persistent pleading, Patricius relented however, upon Augustine’s recovery, withdrew his consent.  Monica also had to deal with a cantankerous mother-in-law who lived in their home.  Patricius criticized his wife because of her charity and piety but maintained a respect for her.  Monica’s prayers and example eventually inspired her husband and mother-in-law to become Christians.  Patricius died in 371, one year after his baptism.  Augustine was 17 and a student of rhetoric in Carthage at the time of his father’s death.

Monica was distressed to discover that her son had embraced the beliefs of the Manichean sect (they believe all flesh is evil) and was living an immoral life in Carthage.  He lived for 10 years with a mistress and fathered a son, Adeodatus.  For a while Monica refused to allow Augustine to eat or sleep in her house.  She even tearfully sought the intervention of her local bishop who famously responded, “the child of those tears shall never perish.”  One night, Monica had a vision whose message assured her Augustine would one day embrace Christianity.  From that time on, she stayed close to her son, praying and fasting for him and, in fact, stayed much closer than Augustine liked.

When he was 29, Augustine decided to go to Rome to teach rhetoric and Monica was determined to accompany him. On the night of his planned departure he told his mother that he was going to the dock to say good bye to a friend; instead he set sail for Rome.  Monica was heartbroken when she learned of her son’s deceit but not one to be deterred, she followed him to Rome and then to Milan.

It was in Milan that Augustine came under the influence of the bishop there, (St.) Ambrose.  His sermons inspired Augustine to look for the truth he had always sought in the faith he had rejected.  Augustine renounced the teaching of the Manichees and at age 28 was finally baptized by St. Ambrose in the Church of St. John the Baptist.  Monica’s tears of sorrow changed to tears of joy.  Shortly after, while waiting for a ship at the port of Ostia to return to Africa, she and Augustine experienced a shared mystical ascent to God which Augustine describes in Book IX of the Confessions.  Monica declared to Augustine, “Son, for myself I have no longer any pleasure in anything in this life. Now that my hopes in this world are satisfied, I do not know what more I want here or why I am here.” Monica died in Ostia in the year 387, the same year as Augustine’s baptism; she was 56 years old. Her relics are in the Church of Sant ‘Agostino in Rome.

On the day following St. Monica’s feast, the Church honors her son, St. Augustine, who grew to become one of the most significant and influential Church Father and Doctor, and whose teachings are the foundation for Christian doctrine.  I do not think either of my sons are on the road to greatness of the magnitude of St. Augustine but they have, and I know will, falter like him. They do have a mother like St. Monica who prays for them and lights candles for them and urgently asks God to hold them closely whether they like it or not.

It is heartening to know that we have in our parish a ministry specifically for mothers of elementary to college aged sons and daughters called, St. Monica’s Society.  It allows mothers to come together to share their stories; to be nourished, encouraged and supported by one another.  Like St. Monica, we see our children through tumultuous times, wooed and tempted by secularism. We, like her, and Mary before her, desire to keep our sons (and daughters) within sight, through their big and little sufferings, to their glory.  Monica is a model of patience. Her long years of prayer, together with a strong, well disciplined character, ultimately led to the conversion of her hot-tempered husband, her cantankerous mother-in-law and her brilliant but wayward son; challenges which find resonance today; perhaps it is, the “same old story” but St. Monica suggests the possibility of a different ending.


Whole In One

Whole In OneYears ago, before children, lazy Sunday afternoons were my norm. The drive out to the country where my in-laws lived was a tranquilizing transition from the busy-ness of the city to the delicious lunch and recliner I knew were waiting for me.  Often, we’d arrive to find my father-in-law watching a sporting event on television; his favorite was golf.  On those particular Sundays, listening to and watching a golf game contributed nicely to the entire soporific experience.  Nothing could put me to sleep faster than a full belly and the narrative lull of a golf game!

I’ve always wondered what golf’s attraction was: standing outdoors for hours, trying to get a little ball in a little hole?  “A long walk, wasted” is how one person put it. Why would anyone subject themself to that?  Some dear friends are avid golfers and inspired their eldest son to pursue the game. His junior and senior high school years were punctuated with try outs and tournaments.  A few months ago I conveyed to them my puzzlement about their, or anyone’s, attraction to golf.  Aghast, they attempted to extol the virtues and values of the game but I remained unmoved.  They told me that there was a golf movie I would have to watch with them which would convert me.  They often suggested this movie night however, I successfully managed to stave off such a night.

A few weeks ago, I was perusing through the DVDs on offer at a local book store and came upon the movie that my friends had mentioned: The Legend of Bagger Vance.  I decided to purchase and watch the movie on my own so that I could scan through it and then tell my friends that I’d seen it so we could forego plans for an ENTIRE NIGHT of watching A GOLF MOVIE!  The content and length of this “Message” reveals that I did not fast-forward through it.

The Legend of Bagger Vance is based on a novel of the same name by Steven Pressfield (1995).  Directed by Robert Redford, it was made into a movie in 2000.  It is a story about how Rannulph Junuh, a fictional Southern golfer, got his swing back.  According to the Director and Screenwriter, golf is a metaphor for life: the rhythm of the game mirrors the rhythm of life.

The movie is told in flashback.  Rannulph Junuh was the local hero of his home town of Savannah, Georgia. At an early age Junah displayed a remarkable talent for the sport of golf and won a national amateur championship when he was only sixteen.  Experts who saw him play predicted he would one day become one of America’s most successful professional golfers.  Junah was in his finest form when the United States entered World War I.  He enlisted in the army along with his classmates and was shipped off to Europe to fight in the trenches of France.  At the end of the war Junah was the only member of his company, the only one of his classmates, who returned home alive.  Psychologically devastated by the violence he had witnessed, the friends he had lost, and disillusioned with the posh life he had known before the war, Junah returns home to Depression-era Savannah to forget and be forgotten.  It is apparent that he has lost his swing; he has lost his grip on his whole life, not merely his golf grip.

Out of the dusk and gloom Bagger Vance appears one evening.  Out walking, he tells Junah that he is  simply “taking in one of God’s glories.”  Junah mentions to this stranger that he has been persuaded to participate in a local tournament in which he will compete with two of the world’s best golfers.  Bagger offers to be his caddie for a minimum price.  His mission, we realize, is to recover balance and integrity to Junah’s game and ultimately, to his life.  With Bagger as his caddie, Junah gets to work preparing for the tournament.

Junah brings his cynicism, guilt and anger to the field.  But Bagger Vance tells him, “Ain’t a soul on this entire earth that ain’t got a burden to carry that he don’t understand.  But you’ve been carrying this one long enough.  Time to go on, lay it down.” According to the author and filmmaker, there is a “place” where everything is spiritually whole—your grip on life as well as your grip on the club; the place where you can “find your swing.”  Bagger shows Junah that his real opponent is not the other golfers or anyone else for that matter, but is his own mind, outlook and attitude.  Junah must let go of his guilt, anger, feelings of inferiority and hopelessness.  He must clear out the debris that is clogging up his inner wellspring. “Concentrate on the field,” Bagger tells him, concentrate on the bigger picture, on life and the things and people that are really important.

Bagger is a humble man who quietly waits for Junah to become receptive and ask for assistance, then helps him get back on track without a word of rebuke.  Bagger teaches Junah that in him (and in each of us) there is a soul infused with the Spirit of the One who is the source of all life and gives life ultimate meaning.  With, in and through God we can be our most authentic self and find hope which transcends suffering and all that we permit to weigh us down.  Bagger Vance ostensibly gives Junah advice about how to play better golf but is actually leading him to live a better, more spirit-centered, life. “I can’t take you there” Bagger says, “but I can show you the way.”

In the novel Junah implores Bagger, “Please don’t abandon me.  Do you think I want to feel these awful emotions, that I take pleasure in the desperate conclusions my heart leads me to? I’m lost, Bagger, help me, tell me what I must do.”  At this point, Junah is like the sinner who knows that he needs salvation but doesn’t know how to find or accept it.  Bagger reassures Junah: “I stand by your side always. I will never abandon you.” In this story, redemption, salvation and enlightenment for the characters elevate the sport of golf to a higher spiritual plane. It’s through golf that Junah finds his “authentic swing,” a metaphor for finding God, His Spirit within and the self-respect and integrity that flow from this awareness.

Is the The Legend of Bagger Vance a great movie about golf?  You golfers out there are the better judge than I.  However, with its gentle urging to cultivate a deeper spiritual awareness, the story will most likely resonate with many.  Give a person a stick and a ball when he is angry and he will hit it differently than a person who is content.  For most of us there are things that need “letting go.”  To recognize those things that weigh us down or distract us from being who we are and whose we are, necessitates spiritual discipline which involves a consciously chosen path. We must remember, the path itself does not produce the change; it only places us where change can occur.  When we fan the spark to flame, and then stoke its fire with spiritual practices, it will gradually transform us into beacons of light for others as they “play” on the course of life.


Something About Mary

The Assumption of MAryOn August 15 we celebrate the solemnity of the Assumption of Mary.  This Holy Day of Obligation gives expression to the dogma that the Blessed Mother was assumed into heaven.  Catholics believe that at the end of her earthly life, Mary’s body was not subjected to the usual process of physical decay rather, she was “assumed”, body and soul, into heaven.  A distinction here is necessary:  Mary did not ascend into heaven.  Only Jesus, by his own power, ascended into heaven.  Mary was assumed or taken up into heaven by God; she did not do it by her own power. Pope Pius XII, in the document, Munificentissimus Deus, defined the Assumption of Mary to be a dogma of faith.  It states, “We pronounce, declare and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul, to heavenly glory.”  What the Pope solemnly declared in 1950 was already a commonly held belief in the Catholic Church. There are homilies on the Assumption dating back to the 6th century and documents reflect that this belief was universally held and celebrated by the 13th century. In his book, Introduction to Mary, Dr. Mark Miravalle writes, “In the New Testament, with the establishment of Jesus Christ as the new and eternal King in the universal Kingdom of God, we also have the establishment of a new Queen Mother and Advocate, who is the Mother of the King. The Virgin of Nazareth becomes the new “Great Lady” of all nations contained within the Kingdom of God, and as well, becomes the new Advocate for all peoples within this universal Kingdom.  It is for this reason that her cousin, Elizabeth, greets Mary with the expression, ‘Mother of my Lord’, (Luke 1:43) which was an ancient expression for referring to the Queen Mother in the language of the ancient semitic courts.” Seeing Mary approach, Elizabeth acknowledges that the Mother of her Lord,  the Messiah, is coming to visit her. Elizabeth is professing that Mary is the Queen Mother of her King. The title Gebirah (Gebira), meaning, “Great Lady” or “Queen Mother” was a royal title and an office which was bestowed upon the mothers of the kings of Israel and limited to those queens who were mothers of kings in the line of King David.  The Gebirah, the Queen Mother of the Kingdom of Judah, was the most important and influential woman in the royal court and the king’s chief counselor.  Recall that the practice of polygamy was not uncommon; Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3).  Instead of choosing a wife to be queen, a king would choose his mother; a king had many wives but only one mother.  A throne would be placed on the right side of her son and a magnificent crown reserved for the Gebirah.  She served in a position of authority and great intercessory power for the people. It is significant that the mother of the Davidic king is listed along with her son in Sacred Scripture.  The name of each Davidic Queen Mother is given in the introduction to each reign of the Davidic Kings of Judah; see, 1 Kings 14:21; 15: 2; 22:42; 2 Kings 12:1; 14:2; 15:2; 15:33; 18:2; 21:1: 21:19; 22:1; 23:31; 23:36; 24:8; 24:18. In tune with their ancestral religious sensibilities the Jews, who were the first to embrace the Christian faith, undeniably acknowledged Mary’s royalty and her prerogatives by the right of her divine motherhood. Thus, the early Christians in apostolic times held the Mother of their Lord in the highest esteem, whose efficacious intercession should not be ignored.  Mary was their Queen Mother who went before their Messiah King to intercede for them. The angel Gabriel asserted Mary’s royal dignity when he greeted her (Luke 1:28).  In the original Greek text, it is written, “chaire kecharitomene”.   In ancient times this form of salutation, “hail/chaire”,  was used when greeting or acclaiming royal figures.  Only on one other occasion is this expression used in the New Testament.  After his arrest and scourging, the Roman soldiers mock Jesus by placing a crown of thorns on his head and clothe him in a purple robe since his alleged crime was that he claimed to be King of the Jews;  jeeringly, they proclaim, “Hail, King of the Jews!” (“chaire basileus ton ioudaion”) (John 19.3). The Wedding Feast at Cana (John 2:1-11) also exemplifies Mary as the Advocating Queen.  As Queen Mother, Mary brings the needs of the couple to her royal Son.  Because of the love Jesus has for his mother, he responds in a majestic way and provides a large amount of wine for the wedding feast. Through Mary’s motherly intercession, Jesus performs his first sign. From the cross, with his dying breath, Jesus said to his beloved disciple, “Behold your mother,” thus giving his mother to all of us to be our mother.  The Gebirah of  the eternal Davidic Kingdom is Mary of Nazareth.  Upon her Assumption into heaven her Son placed her beside him as Queen Mother of the King of Kings. The Assumption at once, completes and anticipates God’s saving work.  It looks to eternity and directs us to consider the conclusion of our earthly life. We believe and hope and resolve that one day we too will be rendered immaculate and be with Jesus forever.  Until then, Mary, our Gebirah,  intercedes for us as our advocating Queen Mother, the holy one who received early, the blessing we all hope to enjoy.

The Beat of a Heart

To An Unknown LandThere was once a mother of five children whose husband died when the youngest was only a toddler. She was a very emotionally and spiritually strong woman who worked tirelessly to provide for her family; ensuring they were well fed, educated and cared for.

The eldest of her daughters went on to marry and have four children of her own.  One of the children, a daughter, grew  especially close to her strong, courageous grandmother.  From early childhood until age sixteen, this daughter spent every weekend with her beloved grandmother.  Her grandmother would read stories to her, take her shopping, play board games and include her in the cooking and cleaning of the house.  Yes, even mundane chores were a pleasure when undertaken with her grandmother!  The young girl noticed however, at an early age, that the only time she did not enjoy her grandmother’s full, undivided attention was when they went to Mass. There, the grandmother was utterly absorbed in the prayers.  A bit irritated but curious, the young granddaughter observed what her grandmother did and said in Mass and eventually began to imitate her gestures and attentiveness.  She was not sure what was going on and exactly who was so important but determined  to love whom her grandmother loved and express that love as she did.

Eventually, this young girl learned about “this other person” who so captivated her grandmother.  Participating in this love brought a newfound sense of joy, peace and purpose.  It was this foundation that supported and steadied her when her beloved grandmother died.

As a young wife, the granddaughter looked forward to having children of her own; to give what she had received from her parents and most acutely, from her grandmother.  It was quite confusing and disheartening when years passed without conceiving.  Appointments with doctors became the measure of her days.  Two miscarriages added dips and twists to the emotional and spiritual rollercoaster.  On one magnificent day, on her way to a third, post-miscarriage procedure, the young wife received a call from her doctor instructing her not to proceed with the procedure; there was one last test that she wanted to conduct before declaring a third miscarriage. The discovery and sound of a little beating heart would forever resound in the ears and heart of this soon-to-be–mother.

This little heart developed into a lovely daughter who was nicknamed, “angel”, for her mother considered her to be a messenger of hope.  While tempted towards despair during the pre-pregnancy trials, the mother always remained hopeful and, like her grandmother, open to and accepting of the will of God.  For her, her young daughter was hope incarnate.  At last, she could lavish upon her all the maternal love that she had known, teach her as she had been taught and daily, savor the beautiful little angel from heaven.

Four and six years later two brothers were added to the treasure trove.  They also grew to adore their older sister and she, them.  Naturally, they went through the normal and, not always pleasant, growing pains and experiences, but the three remained close throughout their respective adolescence and young adulthood.

To describe the grief that devastated this family when their “angel” was killed is impossible. She was 23 years old, seated in the passenger’s seat of a vehicle which collided, head on, with a large transport truck.  The initial telephone call, the appearance of policemen at her door, having to tell her sons that their sister had been killed; these are memories that a mother should not frame yet, they magnified and intensified the great love that flowed between them all.

Beautiful lyrics to a popular song confirms for us that “Love never dies; love goes on beating.” It is no wonder then, that the loss continues to pulsate as well.  The Preface for the Eucharistic Prayer I, used in our Funeral Rite, reminds and reassures us: “Lord, for your faithful people, life is changed, not ended.” This, I believe, is profoundly true for the deceased as well as for those who loved them;  life does go on for those still living but is forever changed.

I ask that you join me in praying for my beloved daughter, Madelen, who was killed three years ago on August 5, 2011; her final commendation was 5 days later on August 10.  While I know that she now rests— along with my beloved grandmother— in the loving arms of our Lord, how I do wish she were still in mine!




St. John VianneyMonday, August 4, is the feast of St. John Vianney. Born on May 8, in 1786, Jean Marie Vianney is often referred to as the Cure’d’Ars, (“Pastor” of Ars). He was the fourth of six children born to Matthieu Vianney and Marie Beluze, poor peasants with a strong faith who lived in Dardilly, a small town eight miles from Lyon, France.

While many are familiar with Jean Vianney’s great work as a priest in the small town of Ars, I suspect few consider that he lived and served in the aftermath of the tumultuous and pivotal events of the French Revolution.  Jean Vianney’s entire life was marked by its tragic events.

Three years after Jean Vianney was born the French Revolution began.  By the time he was four years old, the Churches in France were served only by apostate priests who swore allegiance to the new state church. Priests who refused to accept the Civil Constitution of the Clergy were deported or imprisoned. The Vianneys, who were devout Catholics, travelled to distant farms to attend Mass which was celebrated clandestinely by loyal priests who risked their lives to celebrate the Eucharistic liturgy and dispense the sacraments to the faithful. While Revolutionaries were organizing the hunt for priests and sending them and their faithful to the prisons, Jean Marie was studying his catechism in secret.  It was during a Mass, celebrated quietly behind barred doors by an anti-Revolution priest in a home near his native parish, that Jean Marie celebrated his First Holy Communion at age 13.

The Catholic Church was re-established in France in 1802; four years later, in 1806, Jean Marie, now 20 years old, was allowed to leave the family farm to attend school in the nearby village of Ecully where he was taught by the Abbe Balley. Vianney struggled with school, especially Latin, but persevered nonetheless.  His studies were interrupted in 1809 when he was drafted into Napoleon’s army.  Under normal circumstances, as an ecclesiastical student, he would have been exempt but Napoleon had withdrawn the exemption in certain dioceses because of his need for soldiers. Two days before Jean Marie was to report for duty he became ill and was hospitalized.  Upon his release he was sent to join another group of soldiers however, was left behind when he went into a Church to pray.  Instead of catching up with his troop he went with a companion into the mountains near the village of Les Noes, where he lived for fourteen months. There he assumed the name of Jerome Vincent.

An imperial decree proclaimed in March 1810 granted amnesty to all deserters which enabled Vianney to return to Ecully where he resumed his studies.  He was tonsured in 1811 and in 1812 entered the minor seminary at Verrieres-en-Forenz.  In the Autumn of 1813 Vianney was sent to major seminary in Lyons but was considered too slow a learner so was returned to Ecully.  His teacher and mentor, Abbe Balley, successfully persuaded the Vicars General that Jean Marie’s piety was great enough to compensate for his ignorance and  in August, 1815, Jean Marie Vianney was finally ordained a priest. Shortly after the death of Abbe Balley in 1818, Jean Marie was appointed parish priest for the town of Ars, a town of approximately 230 inhabitants, a town known for its taverns, dances and drunkenness.

As a parish priest, Vianney realized that the Revolution’s aftermath had resulted in religious ignorance and indifference, due to the devastation wrought on the Catholic Church in France.

The French government’s longtime association with the Roman Catholic Church began when Charlemagne (768-814) became the first emperor to receive a papal coronation in the year, 800.  France was hailed by Rome as the Church’s “eldest daughter” and the King had dedicated “our person, our state, our crown, and our subjects” to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Through the Middle Ages and Renaissance period, the Catholic Church in France—known as the Gallican Church— was enormously powerful.  As the official religion of France, nearly the entire population was Catholic. The Church owned approximately six percent of land throughout France, and its abbeys, Churches, monasteries and convents, as well as the schools, hospitals and other institutions it operated, constituted a visible reminder of the Church’s dominance in French society. The Catholic Church was also permitted to collect a tithe, worth a nominal one-tenth of agricultural production and was exempt from direct taxation on its earnings.  Nobles filled the higher ranks of the French Catholic Church, creating strong government-Church ties.  As one of the three estates, or social classes, governing France, the Church wielded considerable political power disproportionate to the number of its representatives.  It is interesting to note that local parish priests did not enjoy a share of the wealth and prestige of the upper echelons of the Church hierarchy and often struggled to get by.

By 1789 tension was percolating due of the inequality of wealth and privilege enjoyed by the nobility and high ranking clergy.  Because of the Church’s historical association with the nobility and absolute rule in France, the institution itself was suspect.  Perceived as an extension of the aristocracy, the Church found itself in a vulnerable position. On August 4, 1789 the Church gave up its tithe and Church property was declared to be at the disposal of the state.  Monasteries and property were confiscated and sold.  In 1790 the National Assembly drafted a Civil Constitution of the Clergy, whose very name reflected the state’s new control of Church affairs. It redrew the boundaries of the diocese according to state administrative lines, it declared that priests were now employees of the state and that henceforth, they and bishops would be elected by citizens.  On November 27 of the same year, the Assembly further decreed that all clergy must make a public oath of loyalty to the Constitution, rather than to the Pope, or surrender their salary and position. This oath became a referendum on whether one’s first allegiance was to Catholicism or to the Revolution.  Figures vary but it is estimated that over 50 percent of parish clergy swore their loyalty to the Constitution. Those who took the oath became known as “jurors” while those who refused were labelled “non-jurors” or “refractory” priests.

Because of the Pope’s disapproval of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy and the Church’s association with the Ancien Regime (the old order), there was growing sentiment in France that to be pro-Gallican also meant one was against the Revolution.  Fearing for their safety, the majority of Church officials fled the country and those who remained ran the risk of being attacked, arrested, or put to death.  In April, 1792 the Assembly banned all forms of religious dress, seeking to abolish this visible reminder of the Ancien Regime.  Later, in the same month, the Assembly suppressed all remaining religious orders, including those staffing schools and hospitals and ordered remaining non-juror priests to leave or be arrested and deported. Concern peaked on September 2 when news arrived that the fortress town of Verdun, near Paris, had fallen to the allied Prussian forces.

Parisians, imagining that imprisoned counter-revolutionaries were preparing to break out and join the enemy, dispensed their own “justice” by descending upon the city’s prisons and, over the course of several days, slaughtered over 1200 prisoners, including 200 priests. These “September Massacres” made clear the distrust that would prevent any accommodation between the Church and the new Republic which was proclaimed on September 22, 1792.

The new Republic government, known as, The Convention, responded to growing civil unrest and ongoing overseas threats with “The Reign of Terror.” The Revolutionary Tribunal, established on March 10, 1793, resolved to demonstrate that persons of danger to the Republic were being identified and punished. Laws of September 1793 and June 1794, targeting ‘enemies of liberty’ and ‘enemies of the people’, resulted in mounting numbers of priests and nuns being arrested and placed on trial.  Their crimes included not only     counter-revolutionary activity but also “fanaticism” and possession of items used in the celebration of Mass; again demonstrating the suspicion now attached to religious worship.  Only a small percentage of priests and religious were guillotined but their trials, designed to set an example, garnered further support for counter revolutionary forces in the Vendee and other parts of Western France and drove religious practice underground.

With the arrival of “The Reign of Terror” and the Revolutionary Tribunal it became clear that the government intended to remove the Catholic Church from France.  Cults were established to replace Christianity.  Under the leadership of Robespierre, during the height of “The Reign of Terror,” Notre Dame Cathedral was turned into a pagan temple, the Temple of Reason.  He introduced the “Cult of Supreme Being” which attempted to infuse a new moral code based solely on the values of the revolution.

Although the Constitutional Church had been permitted to continue its work, the Convention now considered Catholicism, in any form, suspicious.  Its association with Ancien Regime France, its adherence to values not of the Revolution’s making and the private nature of worship were considered incompatible with the values of the Republic.  From this view sprung a movement referred to as “de-christianization”, which aimed to excise religion altogether from French society.  Constitutional priests were advised to abandon the priesthood and were encouraged, and in some cases, forced, to marry.  Any priest that continued to practice, whether Constitutional or refractory, now faced arrest and deportation.  In October, 1793, public worship was forbidden and over the next few months all visible signs of Christianity were removed.  Church bells were pulled down and melted, ostensibly to help with the war effort.  Crosses were taken from Churches and cemeteries, and statues, relics and works of art, were seized and sometimes destroyed.  On November 23, 1793, Churches still open were converted into warehouses, manufacturing sites or stables. Streets and other public places bearing the names of saints were given new, Republican themed names, and time itself was recast to further repudiate France’s Christian past. The Republic replaced the Gregorian calendar with its own. The Revolutionary calendar began with the advent of the French Republic (Year 1) and the names of its months reflected the seasons.  A new ten-day week eliminated Sunday as a day of rest and worship.  Although such measures were unevenly applied, and in many cases met with considerable local opposition, they reinforced the message that Christianity had no place in the Republic.

Between June 10 and July 21, 1794, “The Terror” reached its peak.  Within these weeks the Revolutionary Tribunal had 2, 554 persons guillotined.  Later in 1794, Robespierre was executed and France moved to a new government and a thaw towards religious practice.

In 1799 Napoleon assumed power and in 1802 he signed a Concordat with Rome in an attempt to reconcile.  However, additions to it, made without consultation with Rome, kept control of the Church in the hands of the French government.  In 1804, when Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned Emperor of France, he took the crown from Pope Pius VII and placed it on his head himself, symbolizing France’s independence from papal control.

Predictably, relations with Rome deteriorated culminating in what Geoffrey Ellis describes in, Religion According to Napoleon, “one of the most extraordinary conflicts between temporal power and spiritual authority history has ever known.”  Napoleon was eventually excommunicated and in retaliation, Napoleon had Pope Pius VII arrested and taken to France as his prisoner, first in Savona, 1809-1812, and then in Fontainebleau, where he remained until 1814.

The French Revolution was a watershed event for the Catholic Church, not just in France but gradually across all Europe. The Revolution represents a key development in its secularization. The removal of Catholic institutions and their personnel forced religious worship into the private sphere and increased the involvement of the laity, trends that would also mark the religious revival that took place in France in the nineteenth century.

This was the landscape in which Jean Marie Vianney lived and served and ultimately, transformed.  As a result of the revolutionary wars and Napoleonic era, France’s grave economic woes gripped the country and countless woman and girls roamed the streets. In 1824 Jean Marie, aided by two women, Catherine Lassagne and Benedicta Lardet, established an orphanage, La Providence, for these young girls.

Despite obstacles and the prevalence of secularism, Jean Vianney’s small town of Ars was, little by little, converted and transformed.  The tenor of the town and its inhabitants changed so noticeably and to the extent that it was observed by outsiders. There was no more working on Sundays and the small Church building became increasingly full.  In 1827, Jean Marie cried out to his parishioners with his heart full of joy: “Ars, my brothers and sisters, is no longer, Ars!” for the village had undergone a fundamental change.

Of the taverns St. Jean railed: “The tavern is the devil’s own shop, the school where hell retails its dogmas, the market where souls are bartered, the place where families are broken up, where health is undermined, where quarrels are started and murders committed!”

Jean Marie would often cry in the Confessional and once, when he was asked why he wept, he replied, “My friend, I weep because you do not.”

On August 4, 1859 the priest who only wanted to win souls for God gave up his own.  In 1925 he was canonized and placed on the index of Saints.

Abbe Balley, Jean Vianney’s teacher and mentor, had been his greatest inspiration. Despite the dangers of the Revolution, Abbe Balley remained steadfast in his faith and practice of it.  Jean Vianney wrought a French revolution of his own. The poor boy from Dardilly, ordained a priest through compassion and in charge of an isolated parish; the one who prepared himself to die every day, who understood the strange logic of God who chooses the little to challenge the mighty, it was this man, Jean Marie Vianney, who became a teacher and model, even for those who sit on the Chair of Peter, who are inspired by him and hold him up for emulation to the entire Church.  St. Jean Vianney, pray for us.

St. John Vianney