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