Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Canticle of New Orleans

By Margaret Charles Kerry, fsp

Waters of the earth, bless your Maker. be kind to the people who need you to quench their thirst. Hold back your raging destruction of flood and overflowing banks. Be kind to the city that sings about you in legend, that travels over you to unknown places. Unite people - do not disperse them. Waters of the earth, bless the Lord!

Winds of sky, bless your Maker.Keep cool breezes flowing over the people of God. Keep away disease and danger by your healing movement. Hold back your anger in storm and destructive power in tornado. Be kind to the city that knows when you caress the land and keep the heat from overtaking the plants and livestock. Remind people of God's care. Winds of the sky, bless the Lord!

City of humanity, bless your Maker.Keep your people safe who have built you. Allow them to write music, sing, play and dance in praise of God-given life. Keep those in leadership from misusing what is gifted by the unity of men and women, children and family. Be kind to the City that brings happiness to so many. Be kind to her history that tells the human story. May the city be a city on a hill that shines God's light. May your music, dance, and food be a foretaste of the eternal banquet. City of humanity, bless the Lord!

People of God, bless your Maker.Keep hope in your hearts in time of distress. Give hope to those around you and know that you are loved by those who worry about you in your distress. Reach out to those who are near. Reach from afar in times of trouble - reach in prayer if you can't reach physically. Let us ask forgiveness when our response to trouble seems slow and unthoughtful. Open your hearts to those who are vulnerable. People of God, bless the Lord!

People of New Orleans, bless your Maker.Know that you are loved. Know that the rain, wind and water that bless the city and surround it as a hug outside of times like this will return to their banks and sky. Your hope is our hope. May we share what we have with you as you share your faith with us. We reach you in prayer even as we long to reach you with a helping hand and pluck you from distress. We share in your distress and hold in our hearts your pain and sorrow. May God renew you! People of New Orleans, bless the Lord!

[My] parents' house was lost in Hurricane Ivan: "... The large six-foot statue of the Sacred Heart in our house, left to our family by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in New Orleans, was smashed. But there in the rubble was the heart from that statue. There was the sign of hope that God's love does not abandon us. Their life now centers on people who have suffered more than they have, the people in nursing homes, those who are abandoned and homeless, those without hope. And this faith that has been passed on to me was nourished by the people of New Orleans. The heart that is now enshrined in my parents' temporary home is a sign that 'Deep waters cannot quench love' (Sg 8:7). This is the heart that now beats inside of all of us for those who are suffering from Hurricane Katrina."

Margaret Charles Kerry, FSP, is a native of New Orleans and a Daughter of St. Paul. She can be reached at Kerrysso@aol.com. Website: www.pauline.org; BLOG: www.transformingtheworld.blogspot.com. Copyright © 2005, Daughters of St. Paul. Reprinted with permission. Permission is granted for the free reproduction of the Canticle of New Orleans in newspapers, magazines, bulletins, websites, or in photocopied format, provided that the entire Canticle and the author byline and credit is printed with the Canticle.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Tea with the Girls: Advent of Spiritual Friendship

On the second Saturday before Christmas, the preparations begin. My “Old Country Roses” china tea service comes down to be gently washed and dried; the linen tablecloth I inherited from my grandmother is shaken out and pressed. Ingredients for the special Advent cake are assembled into pure chocolate decadence. My children watch with eagerness, for they know what is coming: Tomorrow is “Funday with Dad!”

The next day, my family makes themselves scarce as I set the table and, at the strike of two, light the Advent wreath. The doorbell rings, and my heart skips a beat: decade-old friendships are about to renew themselves. The five of us seldom gather more than twice a year (we celebrate birthdays together each summer over Tex-Mex); however, these gatherings are a priority. Praying, talking, eating, laughing… as the chapters of our lives turn from one page to the next, we have supported one another in good times and bad, and especially in times of waiting.

Katy is first; this year she brings fruit salad. The tenth of thirteen siblings, she is the anchor of our group, the one who always shows up for any crisis to tend to practical needs – painting a nursery, tending a sick person, and remembering an anniversary. This year she and her husband have another exchange student, a boy from Germany.

Denise is next, bearing her signature baklava. Many single women would hesitate to take on her financial and emotional commitments: She has adopted a girl from Ukraine and a boy from Kazakhstan. Though she has never been pregnant, she knows the joyful, anxious waiting that accompanies a familial addition. I admire her courage, and her determination not to put her life on hold until she finds a spouse.

Lilian, a nutritionist, arrives with a savory salsa dip and pictures of the son she and her husband adopted from Guatemala. This year there are also photos the girl they will soon retrieve from another Guatemalan foster home.

Patty’s specialty is muffins. “How can I pray for you guys?” she wants to know. A veteran auntie and accomplished flautist, Patty recently moved into a new home with her little dog, Buddy. Her solitude is a mixed blessing; the burdens she carries are real, but so is her faith. Hers is a life invested in other people.

This year we celebrate because my waiting is over. After three long years, the adoption for our foster children has been finalized, and we have the piece of paper that affirms what we have always known: We are truly a family. I pass around pictures from the baptism and talk about my studies at the seminary, which have slowed considerably since the children arrived. But that’s OK, too… as someone once told me, “Anticipation is often the greater part of pleasure.”

The Gift of Waiting

The last crumb disappears, the last drop empties from the teapot, and my friends depart for another year. Favorite teacup in hand, I settle myself to await my family’s return and think about what a blessing I have in the friendships of these four women.

In a sense, a woman’s life is about waiting: In childhood, we wait impatiently to be “all grown up,” to have a measure of freedom from parental constraints. In young adulthood, we wait for the phone to ring… for exam results… for the time we will be truly on our own. Later, we wait for first love, first homes, first children… it never ends. In the name of “liberation” we may strike out on our own and grab what we want by any means necessary. However, the results seldom satisfy, any more than a Christmas gift inspected on the sly increases our enjoyment of it when at last it is opened: The waiting is part of the gift.

When the Waiting Hurts

At times the waiting is anxious, even painful. About a year ago we hit a snag in our adoption process: Relatives of the birth parents expressed interest in adopting our children, who had been with us two years, since the baby was six months old. Outwardly I tried to remain calm; inside I was in turmoil. We were at the mercy of the state, without recourse if they decided to take these precious children from us.

The wait became even more intolerable when my sister-in-law – the only member of my husband’s family who was consistently kind and supportive of our decision to be foster parents – announced her decision to move to Arizona. The closest members of my own family live hundreds of miles away; I had never felt more alone.

Barbara’s impending departure caused something to snap inside me. For about a week my husband watched helplessly as I paced the floor day and night, bursting into tears for no apparent reason. Finally, I sat down at my computer and typed a note to “the Girls,” confessing that while I did not feel up to seeing them, I wanted them to know what I was going through.

Less than a day passed before each of them found a way to remind me of their love and prayers. One of them bravely ignored my “no visitors” directive, and came – not to rescue me, but to wait with me. Later, my sister called and convinced me to go and see my doctor: She recognized the depression symptoms, and knew what it would take to get back on track. Within a few weeks, my mood lifted.

Later, I worked up nerve to ask my mother if she had ever felt as overwhelmed with life as I was feeling just then. “Oh, when I get down I just sing hymns until I feel better,” she shrugged. Having lived with her for the first eighteen years of my life, this facile response was dissatisfying. Although maintaining our spiritual connection with God is important, I had learned that stubborn isolation and manufactured cheer does more harm than good. Like Peter sinking in the water, each of us needs a hand up at times.

In times of adversity, women are in some ways stronger than men. God gives us inner strength to wait not with passive resignation but with confidence in his goodness. He gives us intuition that helps us to nurture those who need our care, body and soul. God enables us to sense him at work even in the darkness, and gives us the ability to persevere and to intercede even when a task is thankless or an intention seems hopeless.

However, my encounter with depression taught me that there are times when these hidden, womanly spiritual gifts are meant to operate not in solitude, but within the context of community. “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ,” St. Paul tells us (Galatians 6:2).

When Waiting Heals

My little circle of friends supports one another in our struggles: the oppression of abortion or devastation of miscarriage, the shame of childhood abuse, the dissolution of a relationship, the death of a family member, the struggles of married life. When a need surfaces, we instinctively draw a circle of love around it, tending not just to the symptoms but to the whole person.
  • First we tend to bodily needs: the jar of soup at the door, a painted nursery, an hour of babysitting so Mom can nap, or sheer presence when it is needed most – be it a wedding or a wake.
  • Next we support her soul – intellect and will, memories and emotions: a helpful book, a listening ear, a practical suggestion for an unresolved dilemma, conversation that moves from the trivial to the issues closest to the heart.
  • Finally, we care for her spirit: a commitment to pray for specific intentions, and to ask the hard questions when her life veers off-course. As single women, we would find each other at Mass, increasing our sense of solidarity as together we drew close to the heart of God through the sacraments. Another time, a friend’s courageous question drove me to a confessional prior as I prepared to marry. Because of her, I received the best wedding gift of all: healing from the past, and a clear slate for the future.

A Gift of Spiritual Friendship

“O Come, O Come Emmanuel…” In a few weeks we will celebrate this most precious of all gifts: God as one of us. Through Mary’s faith-filled assent, the eternal Word of God fulfilled centuries of promise, coming to reconcile all of humankind with our Creator.

This Advent season of joyful expectation, do you find yourself waiting physically or emotionally alone? Are you struggling to find peace, or healing from an old wound? Are you getting so caught up in the needs and wants of others that you neglect your own? Remember the Blessed Virgin who, upon hearing of the task entrusted to her, did the most natural thing in the world… She set off to share her news with a kindred spirit who would listen with faith and understanding. In good news and bad, we all need this kind of spiritual friendship.

What can you do this Advent season to renew – or even initiate – one of your own?

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Looking for love?

Day two of my car's transmission overhaul. With Craig in Florida this week, I really can't afford to be without wheels. So I walked into my local Hertz and made the necessary arrangements. The salesguy was handsome, in a pretty sort of way, and as he loaded my carseats into the back of my new "freedom wagon" he commented that he didn't have kids yet.

"Oh, my husband and I didn't get our kids until I was thirty-five -- and HE was forty-five. We love them to death. Having said that, there is a REASON God gives babies to twenty-somethings. If you can, start early."

He smiled. "I'm thirty. I'll tell you, I would, but I have the worst luck with women. Just when I think I've found her, I found out she's been keeping something from me." His eyes told a different story: They were cold and hungry -- not the kind that is drawn to warmth and sustenance, the kind that drives it away. Maybe it was too many years in sales. Maybe it was naked ambition. Maybe it was my imagination. I don't know.

I took a chance. "You know, my husband didn't find me until he was forty-five, and he tells me that it was because he wasn't ready for me until then. He hadn't figured out how to be a good partner -- which is an important part of finding the right one. He read this book by Harville Hendrix, Keeping the Love You Find."

He paused. "Yeah, maybe I need to read a book... Something needs to change."

Today when I go back, I think I'll bring him a little something from my "relationship library." In a world where so many relationships fail, helping the stumblers (one blind person to another) is good for the world, don't you think?

Friday, July 01, 2005

Thought for the Day... Shocking!

“Let us look at our own shortcomings and leave other people’s alone, for those who live carefully ordered lives are apt to be shocked at everything, and we might well learn very important lessons from the persons who shock us.” Teresa of Avila

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Santo Subito?

Today I was perusing the CatholicExchange website, and came across a bracelet that is being marketed as a popular vote for canonization of St. John Paul the Great. Granted, the sky-blue plastic is not exactly the most elegant memorial one could wish for, but it has a curious aptness that I think the Holy Father would have appreciated.

Santo Subito is the song of every person living out the faith with as much fidelity as humanity permits. Sainthood now. Hidden in the dirty dishes and diapers, the 1040s and mountain of unpaid bills, are countless daily opportunities to practice the virtues associated with the saints.

* Short on faith? I remember the year we had an exchange student whose parents were supposed to visit at Eastertime, and my sister wound up back in the hospital for an operation that sucked my parents' bank account drier than last week's soup bone. "Don't tell the people at church," my father warned. "They've already done enough." And we didn't. And so we never could explain why that Sunday afternoon, coming home from church, we found ten large boxes of groceries, crowned with a three-layer chocolate cake, sitting on our front porch. Thanks to the "Chocolate Cake Angel," we didn't have to send our guests away hungry, after all.

* Hope a little dim? Last week my sister was telling me about a particularly horrific time in her life. Her husband was beating her, and threatening to kill her and her daughter, and yet her church friends and family members strongly discouraged her from divorcing the idiot. Lost and losing faith fast, my sister was amazed to get a phone call, out of the blue, from the wife of our childhood pastor, whom she had not heard from in years. "You have your Bible, Kate, and you know how to hear from God," the wise words were balm to her wounded heart. "Do what is right, what you need to do to be safe." And she did.

* Finding it hard to love? Someone close to me has a relative who has been the bane of her existence since the day she married. For a time, her situation improved when a medical scare caused the thorn to regain some of his humanity. Then, like most people in a tough situation, once the scare was over he resumed his old tricks. That taught her something important: Sometimes love comes in an irregular package, one that prickles and jabs. The trick is letting love radiate rather than rub off. Works just as well, and no one gets hurt.

So, just for today, I will take those baby steps of goodness, those bite-sized chunks of virtue, and ruminate upon them. No one would ever mistake me for a saint in my present state. My husband and children are far more long-suffering than I will ever be. But I will practice santo subito, and trust that my brother is using his exalted state to pull a few more saints-in-the-making just a little closer to their heavenly reward.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Should I Cover My Hair? One Woman's Reflection

Kimberly exuded gentle feminine grace even in her most rambunctious moments. Raised in a quiet Mennonite community, she was one of only two women on campus who wore a “prayer covering” over her chestnut mane. And yet, she was not the least bit self-conscious about it, even while performing on the student worship team.

I admired Kimberly’s innate ability to draw people to her, make people love her. Shortly after graduation, she married a classmate and they prepared for their first term of mission service in China. She had utter confidence in her God and her young husband. Most missionary couples had one or two children. In the last Christmas letter I received from Kimberly, they had four and were expecting their fifth.

Then about a year ago, I heard that Kimberly and her parents were killed in a car accident in China. My friend’s death caused me to contemplate my own faith and vocation. In her short lifetime, Kimberly had dedicated her life to serving the Lord, and faithfully lived out that call. I knew there was more to her faith than the fact that she covered her hair in church; nevertheless, I began to think about how that action characterized her life and faith, and wonder whether I should follow her example.

Covered Grace

The question of head coverings is not often brought up in Christian circles anymore. St. Paul’s
admonition in 1 Corinthians 11:4-12 is generally interpreted as a cultural bias rather than a spiritual principle – even by those who take great pains to interpret nearly every other passage of Scripture as literally as possible. The alternative, it is supposed, is to relegate half the human population to second-class citizenry in the kingdom of heaven, fit for nothing but dishing up Jell-O salads and washing dishes at church suppers.

Still, I felt the Lord asking me to take this step of faith, and cover my own hair when I went to church. At first I felt self-conscious, as few other women in my church wore hats. But God richly blessed my feeble step of faith. As I continued to study the words and actions of Jesus and the Apostle Paul, a light dawned: The “hiddenness” of the covering is an expression not of weakness or inferiority, but of a woman’s true strength and God-given purpose: to be a true partner in the redemption of the world.

Human Face of the Divine

The humble obedience of the Virgin Mary brought about the greatest of all Christian mysteries: Through the Incarnation, for the first time in human history, we could truly see and touch the Divine. Mary’s genes determined the shape of His eyes, the curve of His jaw, the wave of His hair. Hers were the hands that held His own, leading Him out into the world to explore and learn long before the world would discover Him.

Just as Mary’s miracle started with a simple act of obedience, my own adventure in “covering” bore fruit almost immediately after I decided to take God at His Word. I became more conscious of my appearance, pulling on hose and a touch of lipstick instead of running for the car in whatever I had grabbed that morning. What is the point of looking like a woman from the eyebrows up, if I let the rest of myself go? My insides began to change, too: It was impossible to yell at my kids for dawdling or reprimand my husband for wearing the “wrong” shoes to church, I discovered, while wearing my covering. The lightweight cotton made me keenly aware of angels’ eyes upon me.

Time and again in the Gospels, it is the women who recognize divine life in the man Jesus. With a word from His mother, Jesus launched His public ministry (see John 2:1-7). The radiant countenance of the Samaritan woman at the well, along with her public affirmation of faith, compelled the crowds to see for themselves the Savior of the World (see John 4:42). In the Gospel of John, the tears of the Magdalene prompt the Risen Christ to reveal Himself to her before His other followers (see John 20:15-16).

Similarly, within the Church, the humility of the covering sometimes induces others to contemplate unseen mysteries. St. Paul wrote: “…any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled, dishonors her head…” (1 Corinthians 11:5). There is no question that she may pray or prophesy – that is understood to be the task of every believer. And yet, by drawing attention away from her natural “glory,” she causes men and angels alike to avoid temptation. And by imitating Our Lady in drawing attention away from ourselves, becoming “other Marys” – altera Maria – we encourage our brothers to be more fully alter Christus each time we approach to receive the Eucharist.

This presentation, of course, extends to every aspect of life. We reveal the God of love when we extend ourselves with spiritual and corporal acts of mercy. We encourage children to trust our holy God by carefully instructing them both in words and example to follow Him in obedience. In a very real sense, as the “Body of Christ” we continue to reveal the hands and heart of God moment by moment, one person at a time.

Intuitive Seeker of Wisdom

Because of her uniquely feminine nature, woman instinctively understands how to transcend mere rationality to embrace deeper underlying truth. As wife and mother, she relies on her intuitive and relational powers to care for her family. As daughter of God, she sometimes perceives spiritual realities that are not always immediately apparent to her brothers. This intuitive power, combined with her instinct to place intellectual knowledge within the context of relationship, is the path to Wisdom. This may account, at least in part, for the reason the “wisdom literature” of the Old Testament presents Sophia (Wisdom) as a woman.

Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well in John’s Gospel is a compelling example of this. She notices social peculiarities: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (John 4:9). She engages Him with humor: “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water!” (4:15). She is not put off by his bold exposure of her shortcomings, but seeks to “connect” the truth she is hearing with what she had always held to be true, until she is able to take the leap of faith and recognize her Messiah.

Another moving example is found in the eleventh chapter of John, at the death of Lazarus. While Mary sat at home, receiving visitors, Martha rushed ahead, struggling to reconcile the death of her brother with the love of the Master. Didn’t He know they needed Him? Didn’t He care? Her quiet words are both a statement of faith and a gentle reproach: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21).

“Your brother will rise again…”

“I know. He will rise on the last day.” But we want him with us now. Can’t you see that? Don’t you understand how much we love him, need him?

Jesus squares His shoulders, lifts His voice. “I am the resurrection and the life… whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”

Somehow, through the fog of grief and pain, Martha sees the light of revelation. “Yes, Lord. I believe you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world” (John 11:27). Only Peter would speak the words as plainly, his declaration prompted not by “flesh and blood,” but through the Father (see Matthew 16:17).

The covering reminds the wearer of the hidden, highly intuitive path that leads us from knowledge to true wisdom. This is not to say woman is incapable of rational thought – clearly this would be an untruth. Nor is it true that all men are devoid of intuitive gifts. However, woman’s characteristic ability to “enliven” sheer rationality through her intuitive and relational gifts – and his ability to channel those gifts constructively with his gifts of systematic reason – is an exquisite example of the gender complementarity of God’s original design.

Selfless, Unseen Worker of Virtue

I was thirty-five years old when I met and married my husband Craig. Thanks to my music training, from the age of twelve I was active in a variety of churches. And so it is perhaps not surprising when I began to equate fidelity to God with visibility of service. There was always one more piano to play, one more choir to direct, one more Bible study to lead, one more event to plan. As a Catholic woman, I came to realize that God was far more concerned about the state of my heart, the things I said and did when no one else was watching.

The women Christ most admired in the Gospels were those who lived lives of courageous virtue that went all but unnoticed – or drew negative attention. He commended the courage of the widow who gave two copper coins to the Temple treasury (see Luke 21:2ff; Mark 12:42). He responded to the faith of the Canaanite woman, who trusted Him to make her tormented daughter though they were not of the “house of Israel” (Matthew 14:24). And he immortalized the love of the sinful woman who poured out her devotion, exposing herself to public ridicule (Luke 7:37ff).

The virtue of hidden service is not unique to women – indeed, Jesus proclaimed that to be first in God’s kingdom is to be “last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). Similarly, He urged discretion in acts of charity, such that “when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Matthew 6:3), and “When you hold a lunch or dinner… invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you” (Luke 14:12-14). The hidden life of women is particularly suited to such powerful testimony in this life, and spiritual greatness in the next.

A Hidden Freedom

It is possible, therefore, to see Paul’s admonition on head coverings to be highly compatible with the liberating message of the gospel. The most vital organs of the human body are covered with layers of bone and muscle and tissue, to protect the delicate functions for which the organs were designed. Similarly, women who choose to cover their heads – whether out of simple obedience, respect for their husbands, or as an expression of their feminine gifts – can regard their action as liberating, rather than degrading. It is a badge of honor, a symbol of joyful surrender, to all the gifts God wants us to have and use as women.

“It is not good for man to be alone,” we read in the Creation account. Biology alone does not account for this necessity of complementarity. Jesus – and Paul after Him – acknowledged the singular contributions of women by including them in His ministry, despite cultural taboos and prohibitions. Their actions and words may be lost to us in many cases – but they are not lost to the Father, who has promised to reward those who give and pray “in secret” (see Matthew 6:1-6).

Monday, May 02, 2005

Forever Family: Letter to my Adopted Children

Today "Mommy Monster" has hit her "wah... zone," feeling kinda mellow. And so, to celebrate the moment, here is a little poem I wrote to go with our adoption party invitations:

When God makes parents
He places a special hole in their hearts.
One place for each child He wants to send.

Sometimes that child grows out of love,
safe and warm under his mother’s heart
until he is ready to meet the world.

But sometimes God sees two people
With holey hearts and empty arms,
And says, “Hey! Let’s make a family!”

So the angels spread out, searching high and low,
and east and west, for just the right children.
Then tenderly, carefully they guide them home.

These children have two real mothers:
One carried them in her body, one carries them in her heart.
They have two real fathers, too: one gave them life,
And one teaches them how to live.

Christopher and Sarah,
Since the day your angels led you to us,
We have waited and waited to call you our own.
Now that our arms are full, our hearts are, too.

Thank you, God, for our “forever family.”

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Papa Bear!

Today, April 19, for the third time in 100 years, the new pope was elected just two days after the conclave: Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI. I heard one radio commentator explain the bear on the new pope's coat of arms: The new Holy Father likens himself to a legendary bear that, upon attacking the horse of the pope, was forced to carry the load to Rome on his furry back. This pope, who has already proven himself to be a fierce defender of Catholic dogma, may indeed lack the personal warmth of his predecessor -- and yet, he is no less a son of Mary. We must pray for him, that he will hear clearly all that the Spirit wants to do and say in the Church of the present day.

This pope took his name because of his great devotion to St. Benedict. And so it seems fitting to quote another German "Benedict," Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, who in a poem entitled “I am always in your midst” (speaking for Saint Angela Merici), says:

You’ve recognized it: that is what God likes—
Patient waiting till the hour comes
That he determines; in the dark to wander
As the Spirit’s quiet movement leads us,
And unseen by human eyes,
To gather the flowers that bloom along the path.
The little buds daily given us at the hand of the Mother
Of the Son of God—
He takes them to his heart: there they bloom
And never wither; their fragrance
Spreads sweet and strong, with wondrous healing power,
Over all the world, closing wounds
That people’s “mighty deeds” produce in it.

Just as St. Scholastica, the twin of St. Benedict, loved and supported her dear brother throughout his lifetime, may we “little buds” of the Spirit continue to love and support our brother, Pope Benedict XVI. May Our Lady gather us close and take our prayers to the heart of Jesus.

Under the Mercy,

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Real Catholics (Don't Always) Genuflect

In 1988 contemporary recording artist John Fischer launched his bestseller Real Christians (Don’t) Dance, the unabashed manifesto of those who refuse to put form ahead of substance, and charity above all.

After ten years spent in various Catholic parishes and groups, I’ve discovered that much of what Fischer says about Evangelical Protestants applies equally as well to Catholics: There are Pharisees on both sides of the great ecclesial divide, who (as Jesus observed) are excruciatingly attentive to detail… yet never think to welcome the stranger in the next pew. “Woe to you Pharisees!…For you load men with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers” (Luke 12:42-46).

In the great dance of the liturgy, for every hundred Catholics just trying to get their families through the hour without resorting to violence, one or two scribble notes for their weekly “watchdog” letter to the bishop: So-and-so botched a line of the Creed. Thus-and-such hymn, clearly labeled “Christmas,” was used during Advent. Worst of all, the priest continues to lead his flock in holding hands during the “Our Father.” (They, of course, observe “proper form”: pointedly ignoring any outstretched hand and scowling at anyone who tries to touch them before the “sign of peace.”)

Some time ago I overheard a popular apologist sneeringly denounce anyone who thinks evangelization involves “being nice to people.” In his mind, it seems, the true evangelist is one who has the last word, wins the most points in a doctrinal verbal sparring match, or “goes in for the kill” against his (usually Protestant) opponent. Isn’t that what Jesus said,

“Thus will all men know you are my disciples… If you can wrestle an estranged brother to the ground, hog-tie him, and drag him into the Church…”

No, I guess not.

Ironically, as I made my way to the fullness of the faith, it was not professional apologists or “serious” Catholics who gave me the warmest welcome (though they did produce the bulk of tapes and books that provided my initial faith formation). No, my “family of faith” album includes:
  • A chain-smoking, martini-swilling mother of one high-school friend, who could never articulate her faith to my satisfaction. However, when a car accident put me in the hospital me for over a month, she figured out how to give me a bed bath and wash my hair. “I know what it feels like not to be able to touch my toes,” she told me. “Love one another, Jesus said – isn’t that what it’s all about?”

  • A college friend, whom I met at a frat party just before I flunked out of engineering school. Three years later, when I went on a mission trip to Senegal, she was one of my most faithful supporters. (Initially my conscience prickled over accepting money from someone who “still needed to be saved,” but pragmatism won out.) Janice continued to correspond with me, and showed admirable grace when I confessed that I had once considered her an “unbeliever.”

  • A young man who treated me with greater respect and courtesy than any of my previous “real Christian” beaus. When he proposed marriage, I refused him; I didn’t want to be “unequally yoked” with a Catholic.

  • My second RCIA sponsor (the first one quit because I asked too many questions) is an enthusiastic advocate for women’s ordination. We have spirited discussions about points of Church teaching (with me taking the “conservative” position). However, I will always owe her a special debt of gratitude: At the time I most needed someone to walk with me, she welcomed me into her family.

In a visit to Mexico in 1999, the Holy Father proclaimed the nature of the “new evangelization” to which all Catholics are called, a task requiring not only a clear head, but a compassionate heart:

The new evangelization will be a seed of hope for the new millennium if you, today's Catholics, make the effort to transmit to future generations the precious legacy of human and Christian values which have given meaning to your life…. It is your role to ensure that the new generations receive a sound Christian formation during their intellectual and cultural training, to prevent the powerful progress from closing them to the transcendent. Lastly, always present yourselves as tireless promoters of dialogue and peace in the face of the predominance of might over right, and of indifference to the tragedies of hunger and disease afflicting large numbers of the population.

And so, I’d like to offer a few observations, for whatever they are worth, about the “Real Catholics” I’ve come to know and love.

Real Catholics may not know where a particular verse is found… but they know where to find the Body and Blood of the Lord, to strengthen and sustain them.

Real Catholics may not know how to pray a Rosary unaided… but they can be counted upon to bring over a meal to a bedridden neighbor.

Real Catholics may resort to Cheerios and sippy cups for their toddlers at Mass… but their prayers for patience are indisputably sincere.

Real Catholics may not win every Thanksgiving Day debate with their zealous brother-in-law… but are confident that the answers are there for the finding.

Real Catholics occasionally grumble when Mass gets a bit long, and occasionally miss the first reading… but they know that, no matter how crazy life gets, that hour gives them what they need to get through the rest of the week.

Real Catholics don’t always remember to genuflect toward the tabernacle when they enter the church… but they live each day humbly trying to embody the gospel message for those who will never read the Book.

Lord, give me patience with the snippy, compassion toward the needy, and charity toward all. In my journey toward the heavenly Kingdom, let me never forget how far You had to go to get me on the right path. Amen.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

I Remember Papa: Reflection on Pope John Paul II

April 2, 2005

It was just today, on the eve of Mercy Sunday, that he breathed his last and found himself at the Gates of Heaven. No doubt Saint Faustina was there to welcome him, along with his other good friend, Blessed Mother Teresa. His father and mother, brother and sister… All were present to greet their Karol as he broke the bonds of earth, running just ahead of the rest of his earthly family, having accomplished the work his Master had asked him to do.

“Holy Father.” Never has the appellation been quite so apt. One glance into those startling blue eyes, and you could see heaven itself. He spoke eight languages, penned fourteen encyclicals and countless letters, and visited almost 130 countries over the course of his twenty-six year pontificate. And yet he always had time to hug a child, write a letter, or extend a dinner invitation. When my husband and I honeymooned in Rome, we were first in line to be presented to Pope John Paul II and receive his apostolic blessing on our marriage. There were eleven other couples behind us, and yet he fixed his full attention on us, his hand extended not in cold ritual, but in fatherly welcome.

He was a man of great passion and intelligence. No other pope was so prolific, or so generous in extending himself for the good of his children. He canonized or beatified more saints than all his predecessors put together, and he was a tireless proponent for human dignity. This is evident even in the way the Holy Father defined the mission of the Church, in which every person – without respect to age, gender, vocation, or nationality – was invited to share in the great work of the New Evangelization.

Without compromising Truth, he extended himself in love to bridge the chasm between Catholics and the rest of the world – Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, and especially other Christians. Time and again, they reciprocated that love and respect.

As a convert to the Catholic faith, I am particularly indebted to Papa John for leading the Church in renewal, so that when I finally got close enough to look inside, I found a faith so vital and relevant, I knew I could never be happy anywhere else.

Like the Prodigal Son, I was welcomed with open arms; unlike him, it was not until I finally wandered home that I realized just how lost I had been.

Time and again, reporters spoke of the “legacy” of Pope John Paul II, asking one person after the other to articulate the Holy Father’s greatest contribution to the Church over the course of his pontificate. In reality, I think this is not the correct question to ask. A shepherd’s work is not about personal ambition. It is about keeping the sheep safe.

Through his writings, his appearances, and especially by his own example, Papa John led the sheep entrusted to him around the pits and brambles of the world in which we live. Though his intellectual capacity and diplomatic prowess were beyond reproach, his true greatness was in his capacity to love.

And so, dear Papa, we entrust you to the angels
with all the rest, like you,
poured out in living sacrifice.
May Our Lady take you by the hand,
and lead you to our Brother,
And may the Son rejoice to hear her speak your name.
May you adore, in beloved company, long anticipated,
and receive your just reward, and dance in jubilation
with the host from every nation,
at the love-fest of the Lamb.
Holy Father, our Papa John,
please pray for us.

Your loving daughter, Heidi