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Our Lady of Good Help

14 Jul

“Go and fear nothing. I will help you.”

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A Criminal Companion for Holy Week

25 Mar

This is Passion Sunday, so you’ll already have a pretty good idea of what to expect: Red vestments, a “pre-Gospel” during the processional, the blessing of palm branches, and a dramatic reading of the entire Passion story. This year, it’ll be Mark’s version, which includes an account of the insults our crucified Lord endured and this telling detail: “Those who were crucified with him also kept abusing him.”

Mark is referring here to the two rebel convicts that were executed on Good Friday, but this is in contrast with St. Luke’s description of a “good thief” who did the exact opposite. “We have been condemned justly,” he tells his unrepentant counterpart, “but this man has done nothing criminal.” Apparently, the good thief had a change of heart as he hung there so close to our dying Savoir, and he gasps an implicit plea for mercy: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Lk 23.42).

“Amen, I say to you,” Jesus replies, “today you will be with me in Paradise.” The Church has interpreted the Savior’s words as an affirmation of the good thief’s ultimate heavenly destination, and he has long been regarded as a saint. Although St. Luke doesn’t name him, tradition settled on the moniker “Dismas,” which derives from the Greek word for “sunset” and “death.” Eastern Christians commemorate him on Good Friday every year, but Catholics remember Dismas on March 25 – the day we normally celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation.

It’s a curious liturgical overlap, you might think – a penitent criminal and the Mother of God – but tradition helps sort it out for us. In the Middle Ages, many conjectured that the actual crucifixion took place on the very same date as the Annunciation – that is, the day we annually mark the Incarnation, the beginning of our salvation that God hinged to Mary’s fiat, and its ultimate accomplishment on the Cross providentially align on our calendar. Consequently, although our celebrations of Holy Week and the Easter Triduum shift every year, the commemoration of the dying Dismas’s sanctifying confession became associated with March 25 and Mary’s pivotal acquiescence.

This year, that date – today – coincides with Passion Sunday, which results in an especially rich confluence of images. It’s the day we embark on a solemn liturgical journey with Jesus, from hosannas and acclamation to ignominy, torture, and execution – and, ultimately, Resurrection. Today is also the day that, at least in terms of human gestation, marks the hidden embodiment of the Savior in Mary’s womb. Death and new life; horrific end and new beginnings; calamity and tremendous hope – it all comes together today.

And it’s the day that we traditionally call to mind Dismas, a figure whose Gospel appearance is itself a summary – this rotten sinner who deserves to die and yet who surrenders himself to the One who is Life himself. Doesn’t that describe you and me? Dismas is us, in a sense, and we could ask for no better friend to accompany us this week as we trudge through tragedy to triumph.

If you have time today, you might want to visit Sacred Heart Basilica at Notre Dame. In the reliquary chapel off the main sanctuary, you can venerate the relics of St. Dismas, including with a small splinter from his cross. While there, you can also venerate a piece of the True Cross of Christ in a church so closely identified with Our Lady and her monumental “yes.”

St. Dismas, pray for us. Our Lady of the Assumption, pray for us. Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us.

This meditation originally appeared in the Sunday bulletin of St. Joseph Parish, Mishawaka, Indiana. 

Of Mick Jagger, a Weeping Icon, and Getting What We Need

24 Mar

“Every moment we live through is like an ambassador who declares the will of God.”
~ Jean-Pierre de Caussade

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The Luminous Mysteries: The Pope’s Ecumenical Tutorial

28 Jan

“If properly revitalized, the Rosary is an aid
and certainly not a hindrance to ecumenism!”
~ Pope St. John Paul II

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Of Time Travel, Christmas, and Liturgical Displacement

6 Jan

“Being obedient, she became the cause of salvation
for herself and the whole human race.”
~ St. Irenaeus

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Of Cell Phones, Sanctity, and Cervical Spines

30 Aug

“A bow signifies reverence and honor” (GIRM §275).

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Of Interrupted Rosaries and Guardian Angels

28 Sep


“Invoke your Guardian Angel that he illuminate you and will guide you. God has given him to you for this reason. Therefore use him!”
~ St. Padre Pio

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WWMD: Of Jeeves, Thomas à Kempis, and the Imitation of Mary

24 Apr

The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner 1896

The whole life of the Church is indeed the imitation of the life of Jesus Christ, but it is not a copy of that life.
~ Louis Bouyer,
The Paschal Mystery

It is a science to know how to regard a model; it is an art to be able to reproduce it.
~ Albin de Cigala,
The Imitation of Mary

Spring semester is always more stressful for me than fall. For one thing, “spring” semester begins in January, and January ‘round these parts (namely South Bend) is no treat. Plus, spring is when I transition with my sophomore nursing students from their previous semester’s clinical experiences in a nursing home to much more advanced clinicals in a hospital – where the pace is often frantic and the student nurse learning curve significantly steeper.

That being the case, it’s spring semester that often prompts me to pick up P.G. Wodehouse for respite and refreshment – and he’s never failed me yet. Wodehouse’s fluid prose and arresting images draw me into his idyllic Victorian cosmos, and his humorous plots and sympathetic characters are like a literary balm. In fact, I keep a copy of Wodehouse’s The World of Jeeves permanently reserved at my bedside – the very copy my mom gave me decades ago as a Christmas gift. When I return home from a rough night at the medical center – weary and worn out, but too frazzled to sleep – I’ll frequently turn to that volume for solace. It works like a charm, and within a story or two, I’m snoozing – much better (and safer) than Benadryl or booze.

At some point this past January as I stumbled late into bed, I grabbed the volume and settled on “Scoring Off Jeeves.” I won’t try to summarize the entire convoluted plot for you, but it involves Bertie Wooster’s attempt to avoid marriage to Honoria Glossop by re-directing her attentions to love-struck Bingo Little. Normally, he’d depend on the ingenious Jeeves, his valet, to solve such conundrums, but in this story, Bertie tries to go it alone. Here’s how Bertie put it to his hapless friend:

‘Bingo,’ I said, ‘what would Jeeves have done?’

‘How do you mean, what would Jeeves have done?’

‘I mean what would he have advised in a case like yours?’

Then, it dawned on me: Here is the original WWJD! Of course, Wodehouse used a slightly different form of the conditional tense, but it’s the same idea, and it predated the “What Would Jesus Do” craze by several decades. I’m thinking Wodehouse could’ve made a killing selling “WWJHD” wrist bands and t-shirts!

jw13Note the similarity in philosophy as well. Both forms are grounded in two assumptions: First, that one can predict how a superior being would act under a variety of circumstances, and, second, that one both could and ought to do likewise. Yet, in Bertie Wooster’s case, that didn’t turn out to be the case. Not only did he fail to anticipate how Jeeves would’ve handled the Honoria Glossop/Bingo Little predicament, Bertie’s own solution resulted in a huge mess that Jeeves ended up having to disentangle anyway.

Why? For Wodehouse fans, it’s painfully obvious: Bertie Wooster is no Jeeves, and he never will be. There’s no question Bertie has good will and generosity in spades, and his loyalty and forbearance are legendary, but he’s not exactly a front runner when it comes to mental acuity and finesse (much to the delight of Wodehouse’s readers, I assure you). The bottom line though is that, despite his best efforts, there simply wasn’t a high degree of likelihood that Bertie could ever know “What Jeeves Would Have Done,” and, even if he could, he was even less likely to have pulled off the same course of action himself.

That’s how I always felt about the more recent WWJD movement: Given my own mental and moral limitations, how was I to figure out “what Jesus would do” in the conflicts and problems I confront every day? It’s the same sentiment that I heard my friend Fr. Rich Simon express on his Relevant Radio broadcast around the same time I read the Wodehouse story. “All those bracelets that say ‘What would Jesus do?’ I don’t care what Jesus would do,” Fr. Simon flatly stated. “He was the only begotten Son of God by nature. I will never be that.”

Louis Bouyer said as much in his book, The Paschal Mystery:

Rightly understood, the imitation of Jesus Christ is the very essence of the Christian life…. This, of course, does not meant that we fallen human beings are to copy clumsily the God-Man. The whole matter is a mystery signifying that we are to be grafted upon Him so that the same life which was in Him and which He has come to give us may develop in us as in Him and produce in us the same fruits of sanctity and love that it produced in Him.

Still, we could use some guidance – and that’s where the saints come in, particularly Mary. Here’s Fr. Simon again: “Mary is what I can be,” he explained. “Mary is just a human being. Her holiness is the holiness to which you and I aspire.” Yes, she was conceived immaculately and born without any trace of original sin, sure enough, but she’s still human, with a totally and exclusively human nature like yours and mine, so she is the Christian template par excellence!

Even Thomas à Kempis, author of the WWJD-esque Imitation of Christ, arguably the most popular work of Christian piety ever, might’ve been inclined to agree – at least if we trust the word of Albin de Cigala who assembled The Imitation of Mary from Thomas’s voluminous writings. Kempis died in 1471 before completing The Imitation of Christ, and later editors were content to publish just the four chapters he’d put together. Cigala detected in Kempis’s other writings that a final, fifth chapter on Mary might’ve been in the works, and his Imitation of Mary fills the bill. Rooted in Thomas’s vision, Cigala wrote that the “Christian soul” who encounters Mary “exalts itself to the practice of the virtues which it admires in her who is, at the same time, a sublime model and an admirable mistress, an example and a mother.” A direct imitation of Christ might be too daunting or even forbidding for most of us, as Fr. Simon suggested, but imitating Him indirectly by imitating Mary seems right up our alley.

It comes down to this then: WWMD – What Would Mary Do? That seems like a much more reasonable and even achievable goal for us to “clumsily copy,” in Bouyer’s words. And just what does Mary do? We’ll let St. Luke and St. John be our guides.

  1. She spoke up: Mary was in her teens when she became the Mother of God, but she had pluck beyond her years. An Archangel appears and announces the impossible, and she asks, “How?” He fills her in a bit, and she responds, “Let it be so.” Later, sharing this spectacular news with her cousin Elizabeth, she bursts into song: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior” (Lk 1.46-47). Unlike Joseph, her silent husbanGerard_David_-_The_Marriage_at_Cana_-_WGA6020d, Mary is depicted in the Gospels as someone always ready to speak her mind – particularly when it concerned her Son and savior. “They have no wine,” she tells him at Cana, and then to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2.3, 5).
  2. She acted: The Blessed Mother not only spoke up, but also followed up her words with deeds. As I mentioned, as soon as Gabriel brought her the time-shattering news of the Incarnation, she hightailed it over to her cousin’s house – for camaraderie and companionship, no doubt, for mutual support as they both navigated extraordinary pregnancies (Lk 1.39). At the end of Jesus’ life, we also see her attending him at the Cross and receiving the Apostle John as her surrogate son (Jn 19.25-27), and then participating in that unprecedented outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost which equipped her and the Apostles for their evangelistic task (Acts 1.14, 2.1).
  3. She pondered: As Gabriel announced Mary’s divinely appointed role as the vessel of the world’s salvation, Mary didn’t panic or bolt – she pondered (Lk 1.29). Then, after the birth of her man-God Son, as the angel-inspired shepherds proclaimed God’s praise, she pondered again – “And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” (Lk 2.19). Mary readily spoke up and acted, but she seemed inclined to process events internally – a prerogative that Jesus himself took full advantage of by leaving the crowds with their needs and going off to pray to the Father in quiet and solitude from time to time (Lk 5.16).

So, WWMD? She’d give voice to truth when required, embody that truth in action without hesitation, and yet withdraw into hidden places with the Lord whenever possible. It’s the pattern the early church followed after the Pentecost Paraclete infusion: preaching boldly, traveling and ministering everywhere, even pondering from time to time – like in Acts 15 where the Apostles gather for the first ecumenical council in Jerusalem.

It’s this last point that is especially important for us moderns to consider – we who presume that “to be” is “to do.” Mary’s example should serve to remind us that the best thing we can do sometimes is stop talking and doing, and just listen…and wait on God.

A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Of the Advent Swell and the Pregnant Pause

23 Dec


Do you not know that your body is a temple
of the Holy Spirit within you?
~ St. Paul

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Two Thoughts About Mary (since it’s October)

4 Oct

With Elizabeth we marvel, “And why is this granted me,
that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (
CCC 2677).

She Who Must Be Obeyed

When I can’t sleep, my go-to is P.G. Wodehouse. I’ve read and re-read the dozen or so Jeeves and Wooster novels scattered around our house countless times, not to mention the ones I’ve checked out from the public library. They’re literary comfort food, and intrinsically peaceful. Nobody gets killed; happy endings are inevitable; and Bertie’s quirks mirror my own quirks – like therapy and sleep aid rolled into one!

rumpoleHence, the other night, probably around 2 a.m. or so, I ambled downstairs to the living room to track one down. In the dim light, I grabbed a volume with that familiar orange spine and Penguin trademark, but – alas! – it wasn’t Wodehouse. Instead, it was Rumpole of the Bailey, a book adaptation of John Mortimer’s British TV series that I must’ve snagged from my brother some years ago.

I gave it a glance: “Rumpole is worthy to join the great gallery of English oddballs,” reads the blurb from the Sunday Times, “ranging from Pickwick to Sherlock Holmes, Jeeves and Bertie Wooster.”

“Hmmph,” I grunted to myself sleepily, “we’ll see about that.” I headed back upstairs to bed.

Horace Rumpole is a criminal defense attorney – a “barrister at law” in British parlance – and an irascible character who quotes poetry, enjoys his tobacco and red wine, and never surrenders in the courtroom. Also, he’s the father of one son, Nicholas, and the husband of one wife, Hilda – whom he refers to as “She who must be obeyed.”

Apparently, that’s a title that Rumpole borrows from a popular Victorian novel entitled She, by H. Rider Haggard. In that case, the epithet applied to the novel’s eponymous “she,” a tyrannical African queen – which gives you some idea as to why Rumpole applies it to his spouse. Hilda Rumpole is, shall we say, a formidable woman who generally gets her way, and the banter between Mr. and Mrs. Rumpole provides for some genial moments in the novel.

As I read and nodded, and the words “she who must be obeyed” danced in my drowsy consciousness, a thought jostled me awake: That title meant pejoratively in Hilda’s case could easily be applied in a more positive sense to our Blessed Lady.marriage-feast-at-cana

For isn’t it practically a direct import of John’s commentary on the wedding at Cana? We see Mary implicitly telling Jesus what to do (“They have no wine”), and Jesus, after objecting to the mandate (“O woman, what have you to do with me?”), extravagantly carrying it out. It’s a picture of Jesus deferring to Mary as “she who must be obeyed” – we should do likewise.

“A-ha!” my Protestant friends will object. “It’s just as we thought: You Catholics treat Mary as if she were a goddess!”

Not at all, I’d argue, and a further look at John’s depiction of the Cana story provides the necessary clarification.

Once Jesus acquiesces to Mary’s request, she then immediately turns to the household servants and gives them a very direct order: “Do whatever he tells you.” It’s the same order that Mary has been giving her spiritual sons and daughters ever since, for two thousand years. Unlike the servants at Cana, who snapped to it and obtained the jugs required for the Lord’s water-to-wine miracle, we drag our feet and falter and forget…and Mary has to remind us again and again: “Do whatever he tells you!”

Oremus, Orans, and Acolytes

This is the season at our parish when the sixth-graders are training to serve at altar. They’re generally short of stature, and I have to admit it’s fun to see them swimming in their albs as they meander about the sanctuary, trying to remember where to go, what to do. (Believe me, I’m sympathetic!)

Seeing them recently, it reminded me of when a friend pointed out that my diminutive daughter could hardly hold up the censer (or ‘thurible‘) – that mini metal stove used for burning incense during the liturgy. It hangs from a chain, and one of the duties of RE-Roman-Missal-Changes-001_t598the designated acolyte (or, “thurifer” as she’d be called) is to suspend it in front of the priest so that he can spoon in an adequate amount of fuel.

The thurible can be weighty, sure – but not that weighty, as I assured my friend. Besides, the altar servers only have to hold it up to the priest briefly – along with the short ritual when they’re sent forward with the smoky bowl to incense the congregation: a few short swings to and fro, back and forth – a cinch!

But what about holding up the sacramentary during the collect? That’s got to be another matter altogether, because, unlike the incense gadget, the sacramentary is an uncommonly big book – dense, oversized, and heavy!

It’s because of the liturgical “orans” (or orantes) posture that the altar servers have to heft this weighty book during the Mass. Just before the opening prayer of each Mass (the “collect”), the priest intones the oremus – the formula “let us pray” with his hands folded. Then, as he recites the collect, he spreads his hands apart with palms upraised – the orans stance of pleading that figures prominently in Catacomb illustrations and other ancient Christian drawings.

The orans tradition can tolerate a number of legitimate interpretations, but the way it’s used today is pretty clear. “The liturgical use of this position by the priest is spelled out in the rubrics (the laws governing how the Mass is said),” writes Colin Donovan. “It indicates his poransraying on behalf of us, acting as alter Christus, as pastor of the flock, head of the body.”

Thus, we can see how vital the acolyte’s humble duty becomes at this point. By holding aloft the sacramentary, the server frees up the priest’s hands to intercede for the congregation. This is in keeping with the instructions we find in the General Instruction on the Roman Missal:

189. Through the entire celebration, the acolyte is to approach the priest or the deacon, whenever necessary, in order to present the book to them and to assist them in any other way required. Thus it is appropriate, insofar as possible, that the acolyte occupy a place from which he can conveniently carry out his ministry either at the chair or at the altar.

It strikes me that this is also an apt description of Mary’s subservient, yet essential, role in God’s plan: to assist her divine son in any way required, and to stay close to him so as to always be available. Mary herself spelled these ideas out in her Fiat (“Let it be to me according to your word”) and Magnificat (“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior”).


  1. Mary is “she who must be obeyed,” and she commands us to “do whatever he tells you.”
  2. Mary, the first altar server, models for us that “whatever” in staying close by the High Priest and facilitating his salvific actions in any way she can.

Shouldn’t we do likewise?

October is dedicated to Mary and the Rosary. Let’s see…where are my beads…. It’s the least I could do.

A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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