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Death Prep (Part 1): What It Is, What We Can’t Do

1 Nov

“Death can be very beautiful…if we make it so.”
~ Ven. Solanus Casey

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Blessed Maria Theresia Bonzel (1830-1905)

19 Oct

Toward the back of the Franciscan Sisters’ hilltop property in Mishawaka, Indiana, there’s a life-size bronze statue of their foundress situated near blooming flowers. “Mother always wanted the sisters to have a garden,” says Sr. Rose Agnes of Blessed Maria Theresia Bonzel, “and she herself regularly prayed the Rosary in a garden.”

Accordingly, the sculpture features a Rosary spread out in Mother’s lap, but there’s another, more memorable feature: The Blessed’s gentle grin. It might seem insignificant, but it’s a telling artistic detail. “As we pray, so we live,” Bonzel used to say, “and as our life, so our prayer.” The joy evinced in that bronze grin not only marked Bl. Maria Theresia’s life and prayer, but her astounding legacy as well.

Born in Olpe, Germany, in 1830, Aline Bonzel had a comfortable upbringing rooted in her parish and eucharistic devotion. Sent to study in Cologne with the Ursulines, Aline found the sisters’ life appealing, and her own religious calling took shape.

Although illness and her mother’s initial resistance delayed that aspiration, Aline persevered by taking incremental steps, including membership in the Franciscan Third Order (where she adopted the name Maria Theresia) and a private vow of chastity.

Once her health improved and her mother consented, Maria Theresia joined with likeminded friends to care for Olpe’s orphans. Such were the humble origins of the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration which was founded in 1863 with Maria Theresia as their first superior.

Bonzel’s foresight ensured that the numerous young women attracted to her ebullient congregation received sound formation, but also a proper education. “Let us joyfully spend…our strength in the service of God,” she wrote, and the sisters indeed had a far-reaching impact through their teaching and healthcare apostolates. Nonetheless, their first commitment was always to constant eucharistic prayer.

The 1870s ushered in an official effort to undermine Catholic influence in Germany, yet under Mother’s bold leadership, the community emerged from the persecution intact. What’s more, the coterie of sisters she sent to Indiana during this period flourished beyond all expectations. When Blessed Maria Theresia died in 1905, she left behind some 1,500 heirs throughout Germany and North America.

Today, this joy-filled community continues to attract young postulants around the world, and many of them happily attended the beatification of their spiritual mother in Germany in 2013.
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A version of this story originally appeared in Franciscan Magazine, Franciscan University of Steubenville.

Felicia’s Glimpse of Heaven

12 Sep

“That I may gaze on the loveliness of the LORD…” (Ps 27).

I sat in my usual place on Mary’s side of the church for the 5:30 evening Mass, which is why I didn’t spot Felicia until it was time for Holy Communion. She’d come to St. Matt’s with Anthony, and Anthony always sits on the Joseph side off the main aisle.

It must’ve been a Thursday, my day to serve as an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist. Following the fraction rite and the centurion’s prayer, the celebrant entrusted me with the Precious Blood, and I made my way over to the Joseph side of the church to await communicants.

“The Blood of Christ,” I said as I presented the chalice.

“Amen,” the first recipient replied with a bow before receiving. Once the vessel was returned, I swiped it with a purificator, rotated it slightly, and held it ready for the next in line.

Only the next in line eventually was Felicia – and I admit I was taken aback. “The Blood of Christ,” I said holding the chalice aloft, and I know my eyebrows went up as well. St. Matt’s wasn’t Felicia’s parish, and I’d never seen her there for daily Mass before. Plus I knew she’d been sick, very sick – too sick, I would’ve surmised, to be out to a parish on the other side of town.

Felicia caught my expression and flashed her wide smile. “A-men,” she said with emphasis. After receiving her sacred sip and handing back the cup, she leaned in: “Come talk with me afterwards.”

Following the closing prayers, I tracked her down in Anthony’s pew. They were talking – rather Felicia was talking and Anthony was listening. She looked fatigued, but she spoke with her characteristic passion nonetheless, expostulating, pointing. When I walked up, she grabbed my hand, clutched it, clasped it tight – and kept on talking. “It’s in the way,” she was saying to both of us as she motioned toward the altar with her free hand. “Someone needs to tell the priest to get that cross out of the way – get a smaller cross.” She was referring to our altar crucifix, which, admittedly, is on the tall side. “It’s in the way,” Felicia repeated. “It blocks the gestures, the epiclesis. Nobody can see the epiclesis.” Still hanging on to my hand – as if to ensure I was listening, that I was catching the urgency of her entreaty – she emphasized the importance of an unimpeded line of sight during the consecration.

It was awkward – I felt like I was intruding on a moment of intimacy, for it was clear that there was more behind Felicia’s animated pleas than a liturgical preference. She kept staring at the altar, staring at the place where her visual participation in the epiclesis and Eucharistic offering had been disrupted – gestures that, in the words of Sofia Cavalletti and Patricia Coulter, “express the covenant in a visible way: God’s self-giving to us, our gift of self to God.” Through her eyes, Felicia seemed to be reaching out to the Good Shepherd whose self-giving appearance on the altar had been momentarily obscured.

In time, the three of us made our way to the exit where we briefly embraced and said our goodbyes. I took off, but Felicia remained behind on the steps to continue tutoring Anthony – to extend and expand the delight of that shared liturgical encounter.

The whole episode was somewhat dreamlike, even strange, yet I was so glad for it. It turned out to be a blessed and serendipitous opportunity to take leave of an old friend. A week and a half later, I heard that she’d passed away – at home, surrounded by her family, peaceably.

Fr. Tom Shoemaker, Felicia’s former pastor, came over from Fort Wayne to celebrate her funeral Mass. “That was her place, right down there,” he said during the homily, pointing out the first pew where Felicia’s family was seated. “She’d sit there in the front, leaning over, on the edge of her pew – as if to be as close as possible to the Word, listening with full attention, ready to respond.”

Listening – and watching, I’ll bet. Just like she did at St. Matt’s, yearning and stretching, thrusting aside distractions, zeroing in on the Good Shepherd, and inviting others to join her – through her words and teaching, yes, but particularly through her forward-looking example.

“Here below we know God…by the idea we have formed of him,” writes Frank Sheed, but “in heaven, our seeing will be direct…. That is why the very essence of the life of heaven is called the Beatific Vision – which means the seeing that causes bliss.”

Felicia’s life revolved around promoting and instilling blissful sight – in her family and friends, in her school, in the children given into her care, including my children. What a blessing to be remembered that way. God, I hope I live my life such that I can be similarly remembered. Toward that end, I’m banking on Felicia’s prayers, like an unseen clutch of the hand, like a nudge. Redirect my vision accordingly, Lord. Help me see what she saw.
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A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

When You Have Less Than a Day at an Abbey

27 Jun

“And I will never, never, never
Grow so old again.”
~ Van Morrison

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Of ‘Zen,’ Gumption, and Conversion

9 May

“A person filled with gumption doesn’t sit around dissipating and stewing about things. He’s at the front of the train of his own awareness, watching to see what’s up the track and meeting it when it comes.”
~ Robert Pirsig

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Of Mrs. Rice, Daily Mass, and the Camaraderie of Faith

5 Feb

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“The Blessed Eucharist is precisely food, which explains why it is the one sacrament meant to be received daily.”
~ Frank Sheed

“How’d you know Mrs. Rice?”

The question came from a St. Pat’s regular I recognized, but rarely speak to. A midweek, midday Mass had just concluded, and the church was emptying.

“Mainly from here,” I replied. “In fact, I couldn’t help looking over to her pew when I came in today.” I paused and added, “I’ll miss her.”

He nodded. Mrs. Rice had passed away a couple weeks prior, and my questioner and I had both attended her funeral Mass. After a brief exchange regarding our mutual connections with the Rice family, he and I departed St. Pat’s to get on with our days.

The great thing about that subtle interaction is how perfectly it illustrates the singular experience of daily Mass habitués, especially the anonymity. Daily Mass-goers frequently gravitate to churches other than their home parishes. It’s a matter of geography and chronology: “When can I get to Mass today? Where will I be? What is the closest Mass I can get to?” More often than not, it’ll be some little parish downtown, or maybe a Catholic hospital or college chapel, so the crowd that gathers for daily Mass will be gathering from home churches all over town. Sometimes we know each other by name; typically we don’t. We nod to each other in recognition, we take our usual spots, we worship, we line up for Communion, and then we leave – again, with acknowledging nods – until we meet again: maybe tomorrow, maybe the next day.

What binds us together is that unspoken common concession that we’re losers in need of grace – that we all have gaping chinks and deficits, and that we all share a craving for Christ. Each time we show up for weekday Mass, we’re silently admitting our weakness to the strangers around us, and we’re confident that, in some way, those strangers around us have our spiritual backs.

That was certainly true for Mrs. Rice, whether you knew her or not.

Her full name was Mary Elizabeth Rice, but she was always Mrs. Rice to me. She was a commanding figure in the South Bend Catholic community, and not just because of her family connections and progeny. It’s true that she’d been married to legendary Notre Dame law professor Dr. Charlie Rice, outspoken defender of the Church, the unborn, and traditional family values – and that she’d supported him in all his many undertakings for over 50 years. Moreover, it’s also true that Mrs. Rice raised a houseful of children (11 in all) who’ve become prominent figures in their own right – not to mention her many accomplished grandchildren. Mrs. Rice embraced her vocation as wife and mother with a fierce devotion.

Plus there was also her own industrious volunteer work: Founding a center for training in natural family planning; supporting the work of the Women’s Care Center and other pro-life organizations; teaching CCD and catechizing First Communicants; helping out wherever needed in her parish, parish school, and beyond. “Her empathy and kindness led others to share their life stories within minutes of meeting her,” reads her obituary, “and she helped countless people with the smallest of problems and the most overwhelming of tragedies.”old-st-pats

But that’s not how I remember her.

“She was a daily Communicant,” the obituary notes, which is something I can attest to myself. Sometimes at the Medical Center, sometimes at the Cathedral, but usually at old St. Patrick’s or St. Hedwig’s in downtown South Bend. She always sat towards the back, and frequently took her seat in the pew just as Mass was starting, so I wouldn’t see her until the sign of peace. Turning and seeing her there at those moments, I never failed to experience a mini rush of solicitude and grace – like, “Phew, there’s Mrs. Rice.” Her wee nod and quick wink at that point, instead of the classic peace sign or wave, was such a gift – like a muted, Julian-like affirmation that “all shall be well,” regardless of what worries or missteps plaguing my thoughts.

Mrs. Rice would be the first to admit that we don’t go to daily Mass because we’re holy. We go to Mass every day because we’re not holy – because we want to get holy, or sometimes because we just want to want to get holy. Deep down everyone is desperate for the divine, and daily Mass-goers are utterly convinced that the liturgy is a readily accessible threshold of heaven – that the altar is the place where the divine crashes to earth each day; the place, right around the corner, where we have the outrageous privilege of physically approaching God.

“If I but touch his clothes, I shall be cured,” the woman with the hemorrhage says in a recent Gospel – that’s us at Mass, isn’t it? At least it’s me. I’m so screwed up, I’m selfish and petty, and even my meager attempts to be virtuous are fraught with ego and mixed motives – if only I can touch what is touching him! That’s what daily Mass is all about, even when we don’t receive Holy Communion. We’re there to bask in his presence, to retreat from our patterns of pride and our routine rebellions, to gain hope, eternal perspective, and, often enough, the sustenance to carry on. Ridiculously, he calls us to be saints, and yet he matches that unprecedented demand with the stuff to carry it out: himself, his own life, his very love-drenched personhood extended to us as a morsel. “Take and eat,” he says, and when we refuse that offer, for whatever reason, he says, “Take your time – for now, just rest nearby.”

And, speaking from experience, I know that kind of Communion-less rest, when it has to happen, goes a lot easier when folks like Mrs. Rice are praying along with you. She was like a latter-day Anna the prophetess, a parochial fixture whose very being quietly “gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.”

Like I said, I’ll miss her at Mass – as will others who may not have known her name. What’s more, I’ll continue to look over to her pew at St. Pat’s, confident that she’s praying along with us still.
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A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

What “Practicing Catholic” Really Means

14 Dec

kids_in_church

“First consideration is due to the offspring, which many have the boldness to call the disagreeable burden of matrimony.”
~ Pope Pius XI, Casti Connubii

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