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Free College, Fatherhood, and Financing Martyrdom

14 Dec

“I know that, if I do what I think God wants me to do,
he will take care of my family.”
~ Bl. Franz Jägerstätter

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Of Baby Spit-Up, Paternity, and Piety

19 Jun

Want to find parents of newborns in a crowd? Look for shoulder stains, especially on dads.

When my kids were babies, I was usually the last to know when a white splotch appeared on my upper back. Invariably it was at church, and we were passing around kids in a vain attempt to moderate the pew disturbances, and I’d end up with the youngest peering past my neck as she bounced in the BabyBjörn. Maybe I was trying to pay attention to the homily; maybe I was just trying to stay awake. Regardless, when the bouncing produced the inevitable blurp on my shirt, I’d remain oblivious, and the folks in the pew behind would enjoy a little little chuckle at my expense.

But I didn’t mind, because I was always proud of my shoulder spit-up stains. Even now, when I’m privileged to hold other people’s babies, I firmly rebuff offers of burping cloths. “Naah,” I say. “If she spits up, I’ll wear it as a badge of honor!” And I mean it. Shoulder spots that stem from cradling infants are marks of distinction. They say to the world, “I was entrusted for a time with a fragile imago Dei, and here’s proof!”

Of course, if my only claim to fame as a dad is that I’ve been known to sport spit on my shirt, then I’d have nothing to brag about. But hopefully that intermittent badge of honor was a decent hint of what I did shoulder in my paternal vocation – that I worked hard to provide for my family, for instance, and that I took pains to model the very virtues and discipline I called on my children to embrace.

In a sense, I’d like to think that spit-up residuals (and their moral equivalent) were clandestinely present all the time, not just when they visibly appeared during Sunday Mass. Fatherhood is about love, love entails sacrifice, and sacrifice always leaves scars of one kind or another. Sometimes you see them; most the time you don’t. But if they’re there, you’ll know it, because you’ll glimpse their associated fruits in the family.

The life of St. Juliana Falconieri, whose feast is today (June 19), illustrates what I’m getting at in a particularly vivid way. Born in 1270, Juliana was from a prominent, pious Florentine family. Her uncle, St. Alexis, was one of the Seven Founders of the Servites, and he took charge of Juliana’s religious formation after her father died prematurely. Inspired by her uncle, Juliana founded a women’s branch of the Servites while still a teen, but she waited to fully inaugurate its communal dimension until her mother died in 1305.

St. Juliana and her sisters led a life of fervent prayer and mortification which sustained them as they tirelessly cared for the sick. Juliana herself was particularly selfless in that work, and her example of service inspired her sisters whom she also led as superior for over 30 years until her death.

At the very end of her life, Juliana was unable to keep down solid food, and so she was deprived of the Holy Eucharist. Consequently, she made an unusual request: that a priest lay out a corporal on her chest and place a consecrated host there. “Shortly afterwards the Host disappeared and Juliana expired,” according to legend, “and the image of a cross, such as had been on the Host, was found on her breast.” This extraordinary occurrence is attested in the collect for Juliana’s feast, and images of the saint typically feature a communion host on her habit.

But that visible sign of communion with Christ would’ve meant little if it hadn’t penetrated into the life of Juliana and blossomed into Christlike charity. As it was, the outward sign was eminently backed up by an inward disposition that led, in turn, to Juliana’s generous outward actions. In any case, the extraordinary sign was truly extra: It wasn’t for Juliana’s benefit, but for ours. Today, it acts as a reminder of what’s supposed to happen in and through all of us who receive the Lord.

It’s the same idea that we encounter in today’s Gospel – the very Gospel we read on Ash Wednesday every year. “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them,” Jesus tells his disciples (Mt 6.1). So, give alms in secret, pray in a closet, fast with a smile on your face – which goes along with dads caring for their families behind the scenes.

But if somebody does happen to see us do those things – if somebody, for instance, spies the Lenten ashes on your forehead or the spit-up on your shoulder – don’t try to hide it. Be glad that your life can be a sign that points others to Christ, and then do your best to back up that sign with the hidden life it’s supposed to represent.
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A version of this meditation appeared on Catholic Exchange.

An Embarrassment of ‘Riches’

16 Jun

“The patron saint provides a model of charity;
we are assured of his intercession” (CCC 2156).

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King St. Eric of Sweden: Template for Dads

18 May

It can’t be easy for kings to become saints. Most are also husbands and fathers, and so you have all the challenges that come with those callings, plus the enormous headaches and perpetual consternation associated with ruling a people. Raise taxes, lower taxes? Go to war, sue for peace? Statecraft, diplomacy, court intrigues – how do Gospel values square with all that? Just pack up the fam, head to the hills, and camp out near some monastery or other, that’s what I say.

Of course, I’m not in danger of inheriting any royal titles any time soon, so there’s that.

Anyway, despite the hurdles involved, there are plenty of royals who’ve run the race and won the prize of heaven, and today we commemorate a notable example: King Eric IX of Sweden. His story is no doubt instructive for kings (and other political leaders) who seek holiness, but I think it’s also edifying for us commoner dads who are equally earnest in aspiring to sanctity.

Born into wealth, Eric married a princess, yet it was his personal merits that earned him the crown of the realm around 1156. Although thrust into power and all the responsibilities accompanying it, the young king’s chief concern was his relationship with God, and he was known for his extensive mortifications and fasting in addition to regular times of prayer and contemplation. These practices buttressed his efforts to fortify the practice of the Faith among his subjects, which included building churches and restraining vice.

Eric was a solicitous king who is remembered for his care of the poor – sometimes through direct visits and almsgiving. Also, he promoted impartial justice for all and, toward that end, supervised a definitive collation of laws – the Code of Uppland – that strengthened the Swedish social order.

When that social order was threatened by pagan raiders from neighboring Finland, King Eric took up arms in defense of his people. Even so, Eric sought the good of his foes by inducing St. Henry, Bishop of Uppsala, to accompany him into battle and then stay behind after the victory to evangelize the Finnish populace – a missionary enterprise that met with success, but which also won Bishop Henry the crown of martyrdom.

King Eric similarly suffered martyrdom at the hands of those who rejected Christian faith and values. A group of irreligious rebels in league with a Danish prince hatched a scheme to murder Eric and take control of the Swedish throne. King Eric was attending Mass when he received word that the insurgents were gunning for him. “Let us at least finish the sacrifice,” was his reply according to Alban Butler. “The remainder of the festival I shall keep elsewhere.” Following the liturgy, Eric abandoned himself to God and, to minimize casualties among his loyal supporters, insisted on facing his enemies alone. As soon as they saw the monarch exit the church, the mob attacked, knocked him to the ground, and cut off his head. It was May 18, 1161.

The tomb of King Eric became a site of pilgrimage where many healings were reported, and he was deemed the patron saint of Sweden until the Reformation. He’s still a saintly template for those in authority, both royal and otherwise – especially dads. As Fr. Butler notes, “every father, master of a family, magistrate, or king, is accountable to God for those under his charge,” and St. Eric’s biography is like a paternal mini-catechism. Like the King, we fathers are obliged to maintain order at home, make adequate provision for our families, and defend them against harm.

Yet, even more fundamental is our duty to foster fidelity to Christ and growth in virtue among those we care for. That can’t be accomplished perfectly, but it can hardly be accomplished at all without our own personal example, and that example will necessarily, almost by definition, involve sacrifice – putting the needs of others before our own, for example, trusting in God’s providence even when we can’t see a way forward, loving those difficult to love, extending ourselves without heed of reciprocity.

In other words, fatherhood always entails martyrdom in one form or another, and here again St. Eric leads the way. Maybe we won’t get our heads chopped off like the Swedish sovereign, but our path to sanctity will nonetheless require death to self. Over and over, day after day, imperfectly, sometimes grudgingly, but consistently and perpetually. Good thing we have intercessors like King St. Eric who understand what we’re up against. Let’s lean on them; let’s lean on each other.
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King St. Brychan of Wales (5th century)

6 Apr

“St. Brychan. King of Wales, undocumented but popular saint. Brychan is credited with having twenty-four children, all saints” (Catholic Online).

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Of Driving Lessons, Fatherhood, and the Moral Life

29 Jan

“Conversion to Christ does not
automatically make us virtuous.”
~ Frank Sheed

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Fathers Stay Put: Of Paternity, Stability, and Canon 522

22 Sep

“Efforts must be made to restore socially the conviction that the place and task of the father in and for the family is of unique and irreplaceable importance.”
~ Pope St. John Paul II

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An Extended Circle

7 Jun

“Remember when we dropped him off in the circle
that first day?”

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Of Ice Skating, Down Syndrome, and Ordinary Time

31 May

“Brave men are vertebrates; they have their softness on the surface and their toughness in the middle.”
~ G.K. Chesterton

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Of Bridgebuilding, Barriers, and Fatherhood

14 Apr

“In the breaking of bridges is the end of the world.”
~ G.K. Chesterton

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