Tag Archives: Pope John Paul II

Blessed Peter To Rot: Marriage as Rebellion

8 Jul

“Because the Spirit of God dwelt in him, he fearlessly proclaimed the truth about the sanctity of marriage. He refused to take the ‘easy way’ of moral compromise.”
~ Pope St. John Paul II

Read more…


Of May Crowning, Corniness, and the 4-H Fair

17 May

“It turns out that Mary is a really big deal for the Catholics.”
~ Dave Barry

What a sap I am.May-Procession-005

Last Friday was May Crowning at my parish, and so I arrived loaded for bear: Two clean hankies at the ready, not to mention optimal pew positioning – close to the center aisle, but not too close to anyone I knew.

Why? It’s so predictable: Once the procession begins and we start singing those corny Marian songs, I commence blubbering – like clockwork, every year. Usually I can hold off through “Immaculate Mary” and “Sing of Mary,” but the clincher is always “Queen of the May:”

Bring flowers of the fairest,
Bring flowers of the rarest.

Picture the children in their Sunday best, with hands pressed together and eyes (for the most part) directed forward, solemnly approaching the statue of Mary in the sanctuary.

Our full hearts are swelling,
Our glad voices telling,
The praise of the loveliest
Rose of the vale.

And then there’s us in the back pews, the moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas, oohing and aahing, snapping photos, recording videos.

O Mary! we crown thee with blossoms today,
Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May.

Even with the distractions and the pictures, how can we resist being drawn into the schoolchildren’s sweet devotional gesture? I know I can’t. I sob, dry my eyes, and sob some more – a  mawkish mess. Sure it’s sentimental, saccharine even, but how any Catholic can withstand that surge of emotion is beyond me.

G.K. Chesterton had a similar idea when he wrote about Marian devotion – particularly the over-the-top sentimental variety:

In people who are Catholics, or call themselves Catholics, I want the idea not only liked but loved and loved ardently, and above all proudly proclaimed. I want it to be what the Protestants are perfectly right in calling it; the badge and sign of a Papist. I want to be enthusiastic about the existence of the enthusiasm.

maycrowningHence enthusiasm (complete with sobs) at May Crowning, and almost without regard to one’s typical level of Marian fervor. It’s all about mom, after all – like Mother’s Day for Mary. We’re so glad to be doing something simply to please her and thank her. And like any good mom, Mary isn’t all that particular. She doesn’t care if it’s a dozen roses or a dandelion from the backyard – an expensive Hallmark card, or a scribbled crayon drawing on a paper scrap. What matters is that we remember – not for her sake, of course, but for our own. It’s good for children to remember their mothers.

It’s good, first of all, because gratitude is a character trait that must be cultivated, beginning with gratitude to our mothers. Our human moms gave us life; Mary gave us Jesus. “Let it be to me according to your word,” was her reply to Gabriel, and it was in that simple Fiat that we have any access to spiritual life at all. Moreover, not to be outdone in generosity, Jesus in turn gave us Mary. “Behold, your mother,” he told the Beloved Disciple, and, through him, all of the church – which is only fitting, given that the church is her own son’s Body.

As my pastor pointed out at Friday’s May Crowning, Mary’s care for us is an extension of the care she provided Jesus throughout his earthly life because now we are truly part of him, the Mystical Body of Christ. As such, we seek to be ever more conformed to his likeness, and it is here that Mary’s maternal care is preeminently manifest. John Paul II, quoting Lumen Gentium, wrote:

As Christians raise their eyes with faith to Mary in the course of their earthly pilgrimage, they “strive to increase in holiness.” Mary, the exalted Daughter of Sion, helps all her children, wherever they may be and whatever their condition, to find in Christ the path to the Father’s house.

Therein lies the second reason it’s always good to lavish our affection on Mary at opportune moments like a May Procession – when it’s easy, for example, and everybody is doing it. Such tokens establish (or reinforce) the habidorothyt of turning to her when it’s not so easy or pleasant. “Wherever they may be or whatever their condition,” the Pope noted. That means the mom who receives our blossoms and childish sentiments at May Crowning will also receive our pleas for assistance when our situations are much more dire and disturbing. “She is the Mother of fair love,” wrote Servant of God Dorothy Day, “of fear and of knowledge and of holy hope.” The former Bohemian and socialist, no stranger herself to the rougher sides of life, further expanded this theme:

No matter where it is, no matter how perverse and distorted, no matter how dark and tortured, there is still in all love a suggestion, a hint of this love of God.

Once again, we do well to remember that she is not particular, and her acceptance of our meager gestures, no matter how broken or bent, can and will transform them into glorious tributes.

That brings me to the St. Joseph County 4-H Fair. For the last few years, I’ve had the privilege, along with several local Knights of Columbus, of manning the Legion of Mary’s Catholic Information fair booth in the evenings. It’s a blast, and I look forward to it every year – almost like a mini-retreat. The Legion provides a wealth of pamphlets and written material about the Catholic Faith as well as information about various Catholic practices and prayers – all to the good. But my favorite part are the Rosaries – loads of them, and all free! When I relieve the Legion ladies who’ve been occupying the booth all day, the first thing I do is load up my arms with a variety of Rosaries – blue, pink, green, purple – and then stand out in front of the booth to pass them out.

This is when the fun begins, for it’s simply amazing how many folks will take them: Young, old, girls, boys, from every culture and walk of life, and certainly Catholics (regardless of how active they’ve been) as well as non-Catholics. “Really, it’s free?” they’ll ask.grange-fair-2

“You bet, and here’s a little booklet to tell you how to use it,” I’ll say, usually with the follow-up, “in case you’ve forgotten.”

Sure, some of the younger fair-goers will take a Rosary as a joke, but not as often as you’d think. Instead, when the non-Catholics hear about using the Rosary for prayer instead of just wearing it as an ironic accessory, quite a few grow curious and want to hear more.

“The Rosary isn’t about worshiping Mary,” I’ll tell them. “It’s actually about praying with Mary to her son. In fact, it’s asking the Mother of Christ to be our mother, too!”

Do they all get it? Will they all go home and pray their pink and green and purple Rosaries that night? Probably not – maybe never. Some of the Rosaries will collect dust in forgotten junk drawers; some will be discarded; others might be retained as good-luck charms. Yet the fair-goers who accepted them did so freely, and at some level the idea sunk in that an unwavering mother’s love was involved. That’s not mere sentimentality. It’s a seed that, with time and grace and Mary’s care, just may germinate and grow.

“All I think I ever asked of her,” Dorothy Day observed of Mary, “was that she should take care of me.” That’s not just a comforting notion for schoolchildren, and we needn’t be ashamed that it brings tears to our eyes.

A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Of Ecumenism, Boundaries, and Amicable Disagreement

10 May

Above all, it is necessary to recognize
the unity that already exists.
~ John Paul II

There’s a 7-Eleven across the street and down a couple blocks from where I teach – Bethel College in Mishawaka. I often go there for an afternoon caffeine boost. I could walk, but if I’m pressed for time (or it’s winter), I’ll jump in the Hond711a and make a quick jog over there, fill up my travel mug, and head back to my office.

To an outside observer, unfamiliar with the local terrain, there’d be nothing noteworthy about that: Just another coffee addict stopping in at his local supplier for a fix. However, my java jaunts have real legal ramifications, for the 7-Eleven is on the South Bend side of that street, and my college is on the Mishawaka side. On the surface, and in practical terms, it’s an amorphous, virtually invisible border. But if I got in an accident coming or going? Legal boundaries – possibly even measured in feet and inches – would have real world significance: Is the accident under the jurisdiction of South Bend courts or Mishawaka courts? Which police department would we call? How will one jurisdiction impact insurance and liability claims versus the other?

That’s one picture of superficial fluidity of boundaries; here’s another.

When I was a kid, my family visited the Four Corners Monument. It’s the spot where four Southwestern states meet up at one single point – Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah. I remember having a blast with my brother running around the concrete slab that marks out the borders leading up to the common point, announcing as we tore around which state we were occupying at any given moment. The legal divisions between those four states is normally very clear, especially when it counts – like marijuana possession and usage, legal in Colorado, but in Utah, not. Yet at that particular spot in the middle of the Navajo desert? Nobody’s hawking pot, so the legal borders are purely a source of amusement, even joy. While marking out true divisions, the Four Corners Monument serves to draw together rather than divide.

Both these images of fluid boundaries capture different approaches to ecumenism, but I much prefer the second. Before I explain why, let me take a moment to define “ecumenism” – a word that is not commonly invoked these days, nor is it well understood. It’s based on a FourCorners1 Greek word that loosely translates as “the whole world,” and, in ecclesiological and theological terms, it refers to anything that touches on matters common to the “whole world” of the church, small “c.” This should be distinguished from interfaith or interreligious matters – those concerns and enterprises involving people of varying major religions (including Christians along with Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and others). While important, interfaith contacts are the equivalent of a United Nations approach to religion, whereas Christian ecumenism is more like a huge family reunion.

And it’s a family get-together that can and should involve all the clan’s disparate branches – reconciled and unreconciled. It includes Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, and Protestants of all types. What’s more, it includes high church and low church, liberal and conservative, traditional and Pentecostal – everyone who calls Jesus Lord, believes in the Good News of salvation from sin, and lives today in the hope of heaven tomorrow. There are disagreements, to be sure, but it’s amicable disagreementa facile disjuncture that allows for rich relationships, and yet respect regarding differences. We come to enjoy each other’s traditions, quirks, and peculiarities; we laugh with and even at each other – in the same way cousins laugh at each other when they get together for the holidays. Behobbit-day-Bilbos-birthday-partytter yet, think of Bilbo’s birthday party in The Fellowship of the Ring. There’s competition, grievance, and dispute between various branches of the Hobbit family tree, and these are not rationalized or ignored. Still, at least for that moment, everybody is overlooking their differences and getting along, which fosters mutual good will upon which real unity can be built.

This was the vision of ecumenism promoted at the Second Vatican Council, and it was one of the Council’s aims – “to foster whatever can promote union among all who believe in Christ.” In the Decree on Ecumenism, the Council Fathers went even further and stated that the “restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council.”

Why? Because it was one of the principal concerns – perhaps even the principal concern – of Jesus himself. Quoting John 17, the Council Fathers wrote:

Before offering Himself up as a spotless victim upon the altar, Christ prayed to His Father for all who believe in Him: ‘that they all may be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us, so that the world may believe that thou has sent me.’

He commanded us to “love one another” first, and then sent us the Holy Spirit in order to make it possible. “There is one body and one Spirit,” St. Paul wrIn this panoramic view, bishops of the world line the nave of St. Peter's Basilica during the opening session of the Second Vatican Council Oct. 11, 1962. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the start of the council, one of the monumental events in modern religious history. (CNS photo) See VATICAN-LETTER Jan. 27, 2012.ote the Ephesians, “just as you were called to the one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one Baptism.”

Thus, unity was a priority for Jesus and the early Church, and so it’s naturally a priority for us. And while nothing can disrupt the invisible unity of the Body of Christ, there’s no question that wide and innumerable divisions have effectively dismantled the visible expression (subsistere) of that Body. We have our work cut out for us!

Yet a word of caution is in order: Authentic unity cannot be accomplished at all costs. “This Sacred Council exhorts the faithful to refrain from superficiality and imprudent zeal,” the Council Fathers insisted, “which can hinder real progress toward unity.” St. John Paul II addressed this same idea very tactfully, yet clearly:

Good will is needed in order to realize how various interpretations and ways of practicing the faith can come together and complement each other. There is also the need to determine where genuine divisions start, the point beyond which the faith is compromised.

That brings us back to those anecdotes I related above – the 7-Eleven run and the Monument: Both involve real divisions despite practical permeability, but only the second image – messing around at Four Corners – involves clearly demarcated boundaries. That’s preferred, beecumcause the goal of ecumenism – at least from a Catholic perspective – is the real and thorough structural reunion of all Christians, not a mere superficial, subjective one. And overcoming division, no matter how it is accomplished, necessitates both an a priori acknowledgement that divisions exist as well as a thorough grasp of their precise location.

How then are we to carry out the ecumenical enterprise? There’s lots we can say about the record of ecumenical efforts over the centuries, particularly since the halcyon days following the Second Vatican Council, but generally the most successful ecumenical efforts include at least these three dimensions:

  1. Common ground: This involves seeking unity where possible, and understanding when it isn’t. Of special importance are those formal gatherings, usually conducted by those with authority in their respective traditions. The point of these meetings isn’t to water down differences, nor is it to engage in apologetic debate. Instead, ecumenical gatherings bring together representatives of different traditions to foster good will, increase understanding, and contribute to the mitigation of structural division.
  1. Common prayer: Closely related to common ground, and always included in formal dialogue, is shared prayer – what the Catechism, quoting Vatican II, refers to as the “soul of the whole ecumenical movement.” In this regard, it’s important to emphasize that lack of structural unity precludes intercommunion under most circumstances. This is a source of great pain for those interested in ecumenical rapprochement since the Eucharist is the pinnacle of unity that Christ himself instituted for his followers. At the same time, however, that painful sacramental separation motivates us to work all the more diligently toward real reunion.
  1. Common cause: Short of full reunion, here’s the best kind of ecumenism in my book – the most organic and natural, and certainly the most visible in terms of witness. “Cooperation among Christians vividly expresses that bond which already unites them,” the Council Fathers wrote, “and it sets in clearer relief the features of Christ the Servant.” This happens when Christians of all stripes come together to defend the unborn, the death row inmate, and the marginalized of every kind; when we work for peace and an end to all violence and bloodshed and war; when we strive together for justice and reconciliation in every corner of our society and world.

For a glimpse of how ecumenical common cause works in practice, try The Keys of the Kingdom, starring Gregory Peck as Fr. Francis Chisholm, a missionary priest laboring with seemingly meager results in rural Chimethodistsna. At one point in the film, a Methodist missionary couple, Dr. Fiske and his wife, Agnes, arrive to minister in the same village, and Fr. Chisholm calls on them. “Tell me, Fr. Chisholm,” Dr. Fiske asks, “do you resent our coming here?”

Fr. Chisholm expresses consternation, and then says: “You know, sometimes I wonder how the Christian faith must appear to the Chinese mind – with all the different sects, all crying at the same time, ‘Come over here. This is the one. This is the true one.'” There’s no denial in this statement that real divisions persist in the church, nor any dismissal of the Catholic Church’s claim to be the true church. Instead, there’s a practical acceptance that, at least in that far-flung corner of the world, Catholics and Protestants can serve God best by showing as much unity as possible. That applies to our own far-flung corners, wherever we find ourselves.

Later, in the film, as Fr. Chisholm is leaving, Dr. Fiske says, “I can’t tell you how happy you’ve made me by your friendliness. And, by the way, I’m not a bad doctor. Let me be of some help to you.” With that statement, Fiske anticipates the teaching of Vatican II:

Through such cooperation, all believers in Christ are able to learn easily how they can understand each other better and esteem each other more, and how the road to the unity of Christians may be made smooth.

Chisholm’s reply to Fiske is equally amicable and the perfect remedy for the sad divisions in the church that he alluded to earlier. He says simply, “We’ll help each other.”

“Right!” is how Dr. Fiske responds. Let that be our response as well.

A version of this essay appeared on Crisis.

Of Saints, Suffering, and Scleroderma

19 Apr


In my flesh I complete
what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions (Col. 1.24).

“Hello, Faddah!”

I’m guessing it was probably the first time Pope John Paul II heard that one in the Vatican’s audience hall. It was my sister, Adeline, who was visiting Rome with my mom and dad many years ago. None of them were Catholic at the time, but my pastor had helped them secure an invitation to a general audience. Although my family had tremendous respect for the Pope, they went to the audience mainly as tourists – devout evangelical tourists, to be sure, but tourists all the same.

Following his remarks and a blessing, John Paul made his way down the center aisle, nodding and smiling and embracing the faithful as he went. My sister, right on the center aisle, was distracted as she gathered up belongings. Suddenly she felt a stillness overcome the crowd around her – she turned. The Holy Father was passing and looking directly at her! “I had no idea what to say,” Addie recalls. “The only thing that came to mind was that line from that movie we watched as kids.” She meant Going My Way, and the scene where Tony Scaponi, a neighborhood ruffian, guiltily addresses Fr. Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald). “Oh, hello Faddah!” Tony tosses out with a breezy hand gesture, trying to deflect attention from a stolen turkey. My sister inStanley Clements (L) in Going My Way (1944) Rome, suddenly confronted by a pontiff, stole Tony Scaponi’s line, channeling a bit of Allan Sherman in the process. “The Pope paused and smiled,” Addie remembers, “and then he looked at Mom.”

I’m told Mom was crying – weeping openly, if I know my mom – and John Paul reached out to clasp her hands. They were hands gnarled by disease, hardened and bandaged and pockmarked with lesions. Vulnerable, hurting hands, belonging to a vulnerable, hurting invalid who’d prefer they belonged to someone else.

Sclerodactyly is what the docs call it, a thickening of the skin on the fingers. Plus, my mom suffered from Raynaud’s syndrome (acute sensitivity to cold and limited circulation in the extremities) and calcinosis (scattered deposits of calcium in superficial tissues). All of these are common symptoms of scleroderma – a terribly disfiguring autoimmune disease that mainly affects the body’s connective tissues, namely collagen. The immune system goes awry and attempts to fend off nonexistent threats by producing more collagen than necessary. This results in characteristically tough, stiff flesh, especially in the hands and face. In fact, the word “scleroderma” literally means “hard skin,” and my mom had it bad.

My mom’s (and our family’s) journey with scleroderma started back when I was in high school. It was summer, and I was on a church work trip to Voice of Calvary Ministries in Mississippi, working on a farm in rural Mendenhall and rehabbing houses in Jackson. One afternoon I was napping after a long day of yanking out nails and hauling refuse, and I lay on the floor surrounded by fans, hoping for relief from the heat. I woke to someone jostling my arm, and I looked up into the face of a VOCM staffer. “We got a call from Colorado,” he said. “Your mom is sick – real sick. I’m to have you call home.”

I got hold of my dad at Boulder Community Hospital. “She’s OK, Ricky,” he said. “It was a perforated ulcer, and they’re dealing with it. But there’s something else.” I was still a bit groggy from the nap and the heat, and I tried to focus as I heard Dad pass the phone to Mom. “The doctor thinks I have something called scleroderma,” she told me. “It’s why I’m having pain and numbness in my arms, and my fingers are getting so stiff.” She told me not to worry. “Just pray for me, Ricky,” Mom asked. “Pray for healing.”

No healing came deOL-Lady-of-Lourdesspite loads of prayers, not to mention countless doctors and specialists and experimental treatments. You see, there is no healing for scleroderma, but rather only symptom management and “optimizing” one’s quality of life. Mom couldn’t buy that, and she was determined to prove the experts wrong. Acupuncture and biofeedback and herbal remedies led to a trip to China and a world-renowned natural healer. No luck. At one point she considered visiting Oral Roberts’ Prayer Tower in Oklahoma to plead for God’s mercy and a miracle. Even Lourdes wasn’t out of the question – no small thing for my staunchly Presbyterian mother. She had great faith, and she never stopped believing that she’d be completely healed of that nasty disease.

Yet time went on with no relief in sight, and Mom began to express her faith in anger. “Why isn’t he doing something about this,” she’d fiercely exclaim. “What’s taking him so long?” She refused to allow some illness to keep her from her busy life: Typing and clerical work for the high school, playing the piano and organ, caring for her family, home, and beloved pets. In time, though, as her rigid, curved fingers grew increasingly immobile, she had to accept the limitations her condition imposed on her. What’s more, there were indications that the disease was progressing and was beginning to affect her internal organs.

Mom sought out comfort and palliation where she could find it – prayer meetings, support groups, and, of all things, a Benedictine abbey just a couple miles down the road. By the time her scleroderma was becoming a mortal challenge, I had became a Catholic in Chicago, and I would spend a lot of time at St. Walburga’s Abbey on my sojourns home to Boulder. Eventually my mother’s curiosity overcame her anti-Catholic scruples, and she agreed to accompany me to the Abbey every now and then to find out what it was all about.

On one of those occasions, she met Sr. Augustina, a hardy German nun who served as the Abbey’s baker. Sr. Augustina herself was burdened by physical infirmity – a pronounced kyphosis, or curving of the spine, which, combined with her diminutive stature, meant that she could look most adults in the eye only by straining hesaint-walburga-01r neck upward. Nonetheless, Augustina was inevitably cheerful and generous, and if her health bothered her, you’d never know it. Always quick with a wink and a mischievous grin, she was also known to keep bags of her homemade cookies at the ready for distribution to visitors, especially children.

For my mother, Sr. Augustina was an especially welcome relief, and they became friends in no time. It was an odd friendship, I suppose – a cloistered Benedictine nun and a Protestant suburban homemaker. As far as I know, Mom never went to Mass at St. Walburga’s, nor did she participate in the Divine Office or any other formal spiritual exercises. She just went to chat with Sr. Augustina, and the nun would hold my mom’s hands and stroke them. On the surface, they had little in common beyond a shared faith and the experience of physical ailment, but that was plenty. Tears flowed abundantly, as did the prayers I’m sure.

“Almost always the individual enters suffering with a typically human protest and with the question ‘why,'” Pope St. John Paul wrote in Salvifici Doloris. “Nevertheless, it often takes time, even a long time, for this answer to begin to be interiorly perceived.” And what are the outlines of that answer? The Pope offered insight that is both compassionate and revolutionary:

It is suffering, more than anything else, which clears the way for the grace which transforms human souls. Suffering, more than anything else, makes present in the history of humanity the powers of the Redemption.

Still, my mom wouldn’t have been interested in the Pope’s insights. All she knew was that she was suffering and afraid and angry at her God. That’s why Sr. Augustina became such a treasured confidant, for her calm, soothing demeanor assured Mom that, even though the disease wasn’t going away, there was still meaning in life – that Mom wasn’t, and would never be, irrelevant. If nothing else, Mom’s reception of the ministrations of others made present the reality of Christ in yet another little corner of the world. And that’s precisely in line with the vision of Pope John Paul who was well aware that the suffering person

feels condemned to receive help and assistance from others, and at the same time seems useless to himself. The discovery of the salvific meaning of suffering in union with Christ transforms this depressing feeling.

In a way, Sr. AuPope-John-Paul-II-Blesses-015gustina helped my mother – and those around her – to see that God wasn’t in the business of choosing saints to endure hardship. Instead, He allowed hardship in general to help make us all saints and, in so doing, save the world. “Those who share in the sufferings of Christ preserve in their own sufferings a very special particle of the infinite treasure of the world’s Redemption,” John Paul notes, “and can share this treasure with others.”

And this treasure-sharing happens even when we resist it and rebel. He’s no idiot, this God we worship. The second Person of the Trinity is intimately familiar with corporeal existence and pain and agony, so He is aware that suffering, physical and otherwise, stinks. Sure, we want to get healed, and He gets that. Saints, though! Saints! We follow a crucified God, so how can we be surprised that suffering is part of what draws us closer to Him. It’s what shapes us into what He would have us become: Holy, despite our flaws and weaknesses, conformed to His likeness through our own versions of His Cross. Crucified! And so, saints!

My mom, a resolute Calvinist steeped in solid anti-Catholic Masonry, fixed her eyes on the beaming face of a saintly Pope and sobbed. They stood there for a moment, the Vicar of Christ and my ailing Protesting Mom, a tiny, tight circle of revelatory love. No words were exchanged, but the communion I’m told was palpable. Then, the Pope released Mom’s hands, gave her a blessing, and continued on his way.

Mom died within a couple years of that encounter with John Paul, and then the Pope died a couple years after that following his own valiant struggle with chronic illness. Maybe their paths have crossed on the other side – who knows? If so, I couldn’t pick better background music for that moment than the Wesleyan hymn we sang today at Mass:

Made like him, like him we rise, Alleluia!
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!

Thanks, Mom, for your example of courage and perseverance. Rest in peace.

A version of this essay appeared on Crisis.

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