This past September, a colleague and I traveled to three cities in the U.S. to discuss with local ministry leaders ways in which Catholic Relief Services (CRS) could engage young adults. Our basic question was this: How can CRS contribute to the conversations folks in their 20s and 30s are already having around issues of peace, justice, and global solidarity?
Two very clear, and slightly discordant, ideas emerged. The first: folks in their 20s and 30s want to offer their time to serve those in need. The second: we as Church might do better to shift from doing good for a world in need to being good for our world.
What do I mean by this? The instinct to do good—to be a service to others, to give of ourselves, to respond in charity to the Gospel invitation to love our neighbor—is something to be applauded. In fact, integrating service into young adult ministry was a priority we heard time and again during our conversations.
But not all world-changing, do-good ideas are created equal. In fact, some can be quite harmful. (For one example from some of CRS’ work that illustrates this general point, check out our Changing the Way We Care initiative on orphanages.)
I’m not saying we shouldn’t dedicate time, talent, and treasure to helping those in need—both in our own communities and around the world. But we should challenge ourselves to be intentional about our initiatives, to investigate the real impact of our efforts—both intended and unintended. We should also ask ourselves who we are really serving: our own sense of self-worth or the real common good.
I write all this by way of reflection on Pope Francis’ calling for a World Day of the Poor, the first of an annually recurring day that begins November 19, 2017. (Click here to read about it in the pope’s own words.) When we think of poverty, our knee-jerk reaction may be to rush to the nearest shelter with old clothes in hand. It may be to donate to a worthy cause. It may be to jump on a plane and fly across the world ready and able to build a house for a family without one.
None of those things are bad, right? People need and deserve clothing and shelter, and charitable donations fuel so many organizations like my own. But intentionality demands that we challenge our own assumptions. Is the local shelter looking for the kinds of clothing I’d like to give, and do they have capacity to sort through them? Does that distant country need me to build a house, or is there a local engineer who is better able to accomplish the job? Do I know what percentage of donations an organization puts toward actually helping those in need?
These are questions I myself have had to wrestle with, and the answers are different in every situation. But they must be asked. Why? Because they help me remove my own ego from the situation and instead make room for the true needs—and solutions—of others.
Pope Francis challenges us to go beyond the doing—which is unmistakably important—to inhabit a new way of living: “We may think of the poor simply as the beneficiaries of our occasional volunteer work, or of impromptu acts of generosity that appease our conscience. However good and useful such acts may be for making us sensitive to people’s needs and the injustices that are often their cause, they ought to lead to a true encounter with the poor and a sharing that becomes a way of life.”
So, then, as we reflect on this first World Day of the Poor, I challenge all of us to not simply do good, but to be good—to integrate God’s vision for humanity not simply into our acts of charity but into our daily choices, our lifestyles, and our long-term goals.
Question for Reflection: How can you follow Eric's advice and not only do good, but be good?
Interested in joining CRS in conversation around these issues? Join our new initiative for folks in their 20s & 30s CROSSROADS en el camino.
To learn more about Catholic Social Teaching, please click here.
**This post was originally published on 11/16/2017**
Mary is known by many titles and depicted in a variety of ways. Today’s feast, the Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows, offers us an image of a woman filled with sorrow, a grieving mother. This title reminds us that she was no stranger to suffering. Indeed, the Church contemplates seven sorrows she endured, which Pope Francis described in a homily in April 2020:
“The first, just forty days after the birth of Jesus, is Simeon's prophecy that speaks of a sword that will pierce her heart (see Lk 2:35). The second sorrow is the flight to Egypt to save her Son's life (see Mt 2:13-23). The third sorrow, those three days of anguish when the boy remained in the temple (see Lk 2:41-50). The fourth sorrow, when Our Lady meets Jesus on the way to Calvary (see Jn 19:25). The fifth sorrow of Our Lady is the death of Jesus, seeing her Son there, crucified, naked, dying. The sixth sorrow, Jesus’ descent from the cross, dead, when she takes Him in her arms as she held Him in her arms more than thirty years before in Bethlehem. The seventh sorrow is Jesus’ burial. Thus, Christian piety follows this path of Our Lady who accompanies Jesus.”
Blessed Basil Moreau, who founded the Congregation of Holy Cross and dedicated the congregation to the patronage of Our Lady of Sorrows, said of her, “It is (in her sorrows) that we shall see to what extent she has loved us! She stood at the foot of the cross, among the executioners and soldiers, so close to her dying Son that no detail of his death could escape her. ‘There by the cross of Jesus stood Mary his mother’ (Jn 19:25). What did she do in this circumstance, so painful for her heart, being minister before the altar on which the sacrifice of our redemption was accomplished?”
Though it must have been unbearable to behold the abuse and brutal murder of her Son, Mary did not turn away. She remained as close as possible to her Son and participated in Christ’s gift of self.
When I am confronted with sorrow—either my own or that of others—I am sorely tempted to simply look away, to live in denial or numbness, or to let myself be distracted by anything else. Working through grief, facing injustice, embracing the cross is incredibly difficult. “But if we shirk the cross, gone too will be our hope. It is in fidelity to what we once pledged that we will find the dying and the rising equally assured” (Constitutions of the Congregation of Holy Cross, 8:121).
Truly, the Christian life calls us not to look away but rather to have ‘a heart which sees’. This heart sees where love is needed and acts accordingly” (Deus Caritas Est, 30). Allowing ourselves to be moved by suffering, acting and trusting that suffering can and will be transfigured by God’s grace is not weakness. In fact, as Pope Francis described in his Lenten message for 2015, “Anyone who wishes to be merciful must have a strong and steadfast heart, closed to the tempter but open to God. A heart which lets itself be pierced by the Spirit so as to bring love along the roads that lead to our brothers and sisters.” When we remain as close as possible to Christ and allow our hearts to see as Mary did, we find new strength. In the pierced heart of the Sorrowful Virgin, we find consolation, refuge, and tenderness. We find a mother who can truly empathize, who embraces our wounds with her gentle touch, just as she embraced the bruised and broken body of her Son.
May our tears mingled with Mary’s be a worthy offering of love. May we, like Mary, cultivate a heart that sees, a heart which is firm and merciful, attentive and generous, and bears pain and sorrow well, “with strength, with tears” (Pope Francis, homily, April 2020).
May we make our own the words of today’s sequence (also known as the Stabat Mater and used frequently in the recitation of the Stations of the Cross):
O sweet Mother! font of love,
Touch my spirit from above,
Make my heart with yours accord.
Make me feel as you have felt;
Make my soul to glow and melt
With the love of Christ, my Lord.
“And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.” -Matthew 16:18
Today, the Church celebrates the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter. While there is an actual chair of St. Peter, the feast doesn’t commemorate the physical chair which is suspended on the back wall of St. Peter’s Basilica above the Altar of the Chair. That chair is said, by tradition, to have belonged to St. Peter when he was Bishop of Rome. The famous Baroque artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini enclosed the original chair in gilded bronze in the mid-17th century and it now sits beneath the famous stained glass of the Holy Spirit in St. Peter’s.
No, today’s feast doesn’t commemorate that specific chair, but the Pontificate itself, that “Christ the Lord… made Peter and his successors His vicars, to exercise for ever in the Church the power which He exercised during His mortal life,” (Statis Cognitum). As we read in the passage from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus Christ has not only built his Church upon Peter, and his successors, but has promised us that the gates of Hell will not prevail against her. The pontificate, as Pope Leo XIII says in Satis Cognitum, is a beautiful expression of the Church’s unity. The Successor of St. Peter is not meant to, in any way, supersede our Lord Jesus Christ, but is an expression of his Kingship which is eternal:
The nature of this supreme authority, which all Christians are bound to obey, can be ascertained only by finding out what was the evident and positive will of Christ. Certainly Christ is a King for ever; and though invisible, He continues unto the end of time to govern and guard His church from Heaven. But since He willed that His kingdom should be visible He was obliged, when He ascended into Heaven, to designate a vice-gerent on earth.
It is in the successors of Peter that this authority given to Peter himself continues in the life of the Church. “It is consequently the office of St. Peter to support the Church, and to guard it in all its strength and indestructible unity.”
This feast is not only a beautiful opportunity to celebrate the pontificate as a manifestation of Christ’s kingship in our Church and a supreme example of unity amongst the Christian people, but it’s also an opportunity to celebrate and pray for our current pope! Pope Francis continues his Petrine ministry, nine years after his election in 2013. The Holy Father has provided a refreshing pastoral vision for the Church, from top down, that focuses on mercy, compassion, and radiating the love of Jesus Christ. He has asked all of us, clergy and lay, to reflect upon, discern, and act on our Universal Call to Holiness and our vocation as Missionary Disciples. This word alone, a product of Pope Francis’ cornerstone document of his pontificate, Evangelii Gaudium, calls us out of a purely inward-looking faith that seeks personal growth in holiness devoid of evangelization and leads the baptized to reflect upon our baptismal call to be missionaries commissioned to share the Good News!
On this Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, let us ask those Holy Roman Pontiffs who intercede for us in heaven to pray for the Church and her unity, and let us pray for Pope Francis as well—that his ministry may continue to unite the Church and always reflect the kingship of Christ which is made manifest most clearly in our weakness, vulnerability, and service.
To learn more about Pope Francis and his pontificate, please visit our Pope Francis Portal.
One of the greatest gifts of Pope Francis’s pontificate is our pope’s willingness to write and speak about the day-to-day realities of many people everywhere. However, there is one experience which Pope Francis writes about that resonates with me most strikingly as a young adult and young professional: anxiety. And, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), I am probably not the only person with whom Pope Francis’s words resonate. In 2020, an estimated 48 million people experienced an anxiety disorder. Anxiety and anxiety disorders exist on a spectrum, ranging from mild interference with professional, relational, and/or other aspects of a person’s life, to causing major difficulties performing basic functions of human life. In other words, anxiety can look like worrying about an upcoming meeting to the extent that it causes racing thoughts and accelerated heartbeat or it can look like a debilitating fear that causes avoidance of daily plans and activities altogether.
So, what does Pope Francis have to say about this wide-ranging experience that shows up in the lives of so many? In his 2018 Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis sees anxiety as something that can cause us to act for the wrong reasons: “Needless to say, anything done out of anxiety, pride or the need to impress others will not lead to holiness. We are challenged to show our commitment in such a way that everything we do has evangelical meaning and identifies us all the more with Jesus Christ.” Here, Pope Francis identifies that the worries, racing thoughts, and fears can thwart our best judgment and right intentions. Experiencing anxiety can cause us to miss the mark in our perceptions of others, ourselves, or certain situations. Rather than coming from a place of a collected and balanced mindset, we may be influenced by anxiety to choose to act out of fear or worry.
In his 2013 Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis shares a similar sentiment. When describing the patience and time it takes to promote the common good of a society in paragraph 223, our pope encourages, “What we need, then, is to give priority to actions which generate new processes in society and engage other persons and groups who can develop them to the point where they bear fruit in significant historical events. Without anxiety, but with clear convictions and tenacity.” Here, Pope Francis follows a similar thought to Gaudete et Exsultate: anxiety clouds our judgment and perceptions—preventing us from taking clear steps forward in difficult situations or relationship challenges.
Perhaps Pope Francis’s punchiest paragraph on anxiety comes from Christus Vivit. In paragraph 142, he cautions young people and the entire church in falling prey to the fear and paralysis that comes from anxiety:
“Keep following your hopes and dreams. But be careful about one temptation that can hold us back. It is anxiety. Anxiety can work against us by making us give up whenever we do not see instant results. Our best dreams are only attained through hope, patience and commitment, and not in haste. At the same time, we should not be hesitant, afraid to take chances or make mistakes. Avoid the paralysis of the living dead, who have no life because they are afraid to take risks, to make mistakes or to persevere in their commitments. Even if you make mistakes, you can always get up and start over, for no one has the right to rob you of hope.”
Here, Pope Francis highlights how anxiety can prevent us from moving forward. How often are we afraid to pick up the phone and call a friend that we haven’t spoken to in a while because we are anxious about what to say? Or how many times have we put off a difficult conversation because we are fearful about how it might change our relationship with the other person with whom we speak? How many times have we passed up applying for that school, a certain job, or taking on a particular project because we are afraid that our abilities wouldn’t measure up? For Pope Francis, many of these situations have anxiety at their root.
So, what can we make of how Pope Francis writes about anxiety? For our pope, anxiety is a difficult and challenging issue. Though Pope Francis mentions anxiety can affect a person’s life negatively, notice that he never mentions anxiety as sinful. Like other health and mental health conditions and experiences, anxiety itself is not a sin and is not a punishment for sin, but rather comes from our imperfect human nature. What Pope Francis does hint at, though, is that learning to live with anxiety contributes to our holiness.
How does learning to live with anxiety contribute to our growth in holiness? Learning to manage our anxiety—whether through a relationship with a licensed therapist, medication, self-care practices, or other means of support—allows us to live out our calling to holiness more freely and generously. Anxiety causes us to make decisions, act, and cope with the situations of life out of worry, nervousness, and fear. Managing our anxiety allows us to learn to live more mindfully and intentionally, gain insight into what is causing our fear and worry, and make choices to act from a place of balance and discernment. In other words, instead of being paralyzed by anxiety, learning to manage it allows us to respond to others and situations in our lives more thoughtfully—seeing them not as threats or reasons to make judgments out of fear, but opportunities for us to be drawn out of ourselves, despite our nervousness or fear.
If holiness means to set apart our lives for God’s action and living out our mission, our experience of anxiety can be a part of our vocation to holiness as we see it as an opportunity to grow, become more generous, place our trust in God, and challenge our fears. As Pope Francis encourages us in paragraph 143 of Christus Vivit, “Take risks, even if it means making mistakes. Don’t go through life anesthetized or approach the world like tourists. Make a ruckus! Cast out the fears that paralyze you, so that you don’t become young mummies.”
When you ask someone which of Pope Francis’ writings they think of first, you’re likely to hear Evangelii Gaudium, maybe Christus Vivit if you’re talking to someone in youth or young adult ministry, Laudato Si if the person is particularly environmentally conscious, or Amoris Laetitia for those who work in family ministry. The two that, by my estimation, might be least likely to be mentioned are Lumen Fidei (which was Pope Francis’ first papal document and was written by both he and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) and his Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate. This is a real tragedy because Gaudete et Exsultate might be one of the most important writings in Pope Francis’ pontificate, though I know that since I’ve said this, he’ll write something even better.
Recently, the Church has celebrated the Solemnity of All Saints and the Commemoration of All Souls. On All Souls Day, the Church prays for all of the faithful departed, for the souls in Purgatory who will, one day, be welcomed into the Eternal Banquet. The Solemnity of All Saints celebrates all of the Saints in Heaven, both those great saints who are venerated in churches across the world, and those “saints next door”. In Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis writes, “very often it is a holiness found in our next-door neighbours, those who, living in our midst, reflect God’s presence… Let us be spurred on by the signs of holiness that the Lord shows us through the humblest members of that people which ‘shares also in Christ’s prophetic office, spreading abroad a living witness to him, especially by means of a life of faith and charity’.” He reminds us that holiness is not just for those who are called to do great things, but by all of those who live a life of faith and who are followers of Jesus.
We often see prominent Catholics telling us to “do great things”. They get this from Pope St. John Paul II who said to young people at World Youth Day in 2000, “It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives, the will to follow an ideal, the refusal to allow yourselves to be grounded down by mediocrity, the courage to commit yourselves humbly and patiently to improving yourselves and society, making the world more human and more fraternal.” And the great Saint has a point: when the world leads us to such mediocrity, a mediocrity which leads us to individualism, relativism, and complacency, the Lord Jesus leads us to greatness. What I think can be lost in translation, at times, is that this greatness is not worldly greatness. This greatness which Pope St. John Paul II spoke of is the greatness that a life of faithful missionary discipleship can bring. Greatness that is marked by hope, by a rich and abounding charity towards our neighbor, by a gentleness that comes from resting in eternal truth, and by a trajectory that always moves, as Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati would say, “verso l’alto”, or “to the heights.”
In Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis leads the People of God on this journey to greatness which, when properly viewed, is indeed the journey to holiness. He reminds us that the Scriptures give us regular calls to holiness, a theology which was explored and articulated more deeply and precisely at the Second Vatican Council. He reminds us that, “This holiness to which the Lord calls you will grow through small gestures,” in a way echoing the words of St. Teresa of Calcutta who said, “not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love.”
Maybe this is the greatness which Pope St. John Paul II was speaking about to those young people over two decades ago. Not greatness which is pursued for any individual person’s gain, but great love. Love which seeks to echo the love of Jesus Christ on the Cross, love that wills the good of the other. This love is articulated in the Beatitudes, which Pope Francis calls “the Christian’s identity card.”
Pope Francis gives us a deep and insightful document in Gaudete et Exsultate. He gives us cause to reflect on our lives and on the holiness which the Lord calls us to. He reminds us that we can’t do the Christian life alone and that our living of that life will make us counter cultural. We should find great cause for hope in Gaudete et Exsultate. In the words of Pope Francis, may we, “ask the Holy Spirit to pour out upon us a fervent longing to be saints for God’s greater glory, and let us encourage one another in this effort. In this way, we will share a happiness that the world will not be able to take from us.”
For more resources on Pope Francis, click here for our Pope Francis Portal.
For more resources on Gaudete et Exsultate, click here for our resource page.
“Serve the Lord with laughter.”
It’s a quote from a favorite and incredibly popular saint that might surprise us, for the man who spoke these words was so deep, profound, and intentional that we might overlook the fact that he laughed. When we think of St. Padre Pio, we often instead focus on the deep wounds in his hands—the stigmata which he bore for 50 years—or his ability to levitate, speak with his guardian angel, read souls, or bilocate.
Laughter seems too ordinary, perhaps, for sanctity.
And yet, as a practical jokester and manager of mischief, I am drawn to this quote deeply—for I feel a personal apostolate of joy and am experiencing that call more starkly in a season in my life marked by exhaustion, stress, and transition.
Some of my favorite saints and quotes from Scripture focus on the theme of joy. When asked to speak to a group at Theology on Tap several years ago, I chose “The Serious Call to Joy” as my topic. I love Psalm 34, which reads, “Look to him that you may be radiant with joy.” And I often meditate on Christ’s words to his disciples: “I have said these things to you, so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (Jn 15:11). Finally, a patron of our family is St. Philip Neri, who was lovingly nicknamed “Apostle of Joy.” My son John Philip was even born on his feast day and shares his name.
When I think of what I want to be called after my death, I can’t think of anything better than that title given to St. Philip Neri (apart from, perhaps, being known as the Patron Saint of Bacon). To me, joy just seems like the natural fruit of holiness—a sure sign of a deep and profound relationship with Christ.
Pope Francis himself has noted this—dedicating an entire encyclical to the joy of the Gospel. He made waves when publishing the encyclical because he said there was no room in evangelization for “sourpusses”—the first time any such term has appeared in a papal document.
He explains, “Proclaiming Christ means showing that to believe in and to follow him is not only something right and true, but also something beautiful, capable of filling life with new splendor and profound joy, even in the midst of difficulties.”
I think now of joy perhaps because I’m seeing so little of it in general. The world seems bogged down by burdens greater than we think we can bear. And being 8 months pregnant, I find myself a bit bogged down physically and emotionally, too. But, Pope Francis reminds us that the joy of Christ is possible even in the midst of our suffering and hardship. This does not diminish our suffering, nor does it erase or ignore it, but points out that Christian joy can transcend and transfigure suffering.
So, when I came across Padre Pio’s quote on his feast day earlier this month, it was a powerful reminder of my call to laughter—or at least of my commitment to being an apostle of joy.
Pope Francis continues, “Joy adapts and changes, but it always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved.” (EG, 6)
The knowledge that I am infinitely loved despite my frailty and littleness, especially in this season of pregnancy, is what beckons me ever onward.
If I think of my life right now, I don’t know how else to keep going other than by laughing. I look down to find crumbs and stains dotting my bulging belly. My goal most days is not to waddle while walking. I find myself stopping mid-sentence because I forgot my train of thought or walking into a room to get something just to leave puzzled, muttering to myself. Turning over in bed practically requires the use of a crane. And I face my staircase each day with the determination of one climbing Mt. Everest.
Humor aside, if we turn to Scripture, we find a love story saturated with calls and invitations to joy. From the Old Testament to the New, God speaks to us throughout salvation history because he wants to restore his creation to be “man fully alive.” For me, someone who is “fully alive” is a person of joy that radiates love wherever they go.
As our world and society continue to navigate times of hardship, transition, and injustice, and as you personally continue to navigate your own crosses (whether they be staircases or not), I invite you to ask St. Padre Pio and other holy men and women to help teach you the secret of joy that comes from “the certainty that Jesus is with us and with the Father.”
May we all become apostles and ambassadors of joy to a world thirsting for Christ’s love and may we find creative and nourishing ways to serve the Lord with laughter.
As Pope Francis quotes Paul VI saying,
“Let us recover and deepen our enthusiasm, that ‘delightful and comforting joy of evangelizing, even when it is in tears that we must sow… And may the world of our time, which is searching, sometimes with anguish, sometimes with hope, be enabled to receive the good news not from evangelizers who are dejected, discouraged, impatient or anxious, but from ministers of the Gospel whose lives glow with fervor, who have first received the joy of Christ.’”
As with the Christian concept of love or charity, dialogue in a Christian context is focused on the other rather than oneself. As Pope Francis notes in number 198 of his Encyclical Fratelli Tutti, dialogue is a way of coming to know the other:
“If we want to encounter and help one another, we have to dialogue.”
To truly “encounter and help one another,” we need to deepen our presence more profoundly to the other through dialogue. Careful, patient, attentive, and compassionate listening to both the other person and to the Holy Spirit are needed.
Bishop Séamus Freeman, S.A.C., who did much to further the Pallottine charism, would speak of this type of listening as a “trialogue” of each person involved and God. St. Vincent Pallotti understood this well when he focused great attention on the Upper Room or the Cenacle as the place of this type of listening, encounter, and discernment.
It is worth our asking a few questions to review the quality of our trialogue. How am I engaging in trialogue? Am I simply having a dialogue, with no reference to God in the conversation? Is my dialogue focused on convincing the other of my point of view? Am I am offering my true thought and feeling to the other person or telling them what they want to hear? How open am I to deeper conversion of my understanding to one that is more aligned with what God is asking of me and the other person?
There are no quick and easy answers to these questions. They require reflection in the context of prayer on experiences of dialogue and trialogue that we have. They also require openness to the Holy Spirit and a willingness to cooperate with the grace given by Christ. As we practice trialogue, we begin to see and experience the other person not as “other” but as another in the communal “journeying together” (Cf., Preparatory Document for the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, 11).
May the Charity of Christ urge us on!
What does it mean to be a spiritual father? For me, the answer is found in the experience of fathers that I have known or know. Some are biological fathers, others are father-figures, such as older relatives and friends, priests, and religious brothers. Each in his own way showed me how to love in a fatherly way. Spiritual fatherhood is loving universally, not particularly. The love of Christ that urges us on is one that loves all, no matter what. That is not easy to do, and I fail more often at it than I succeed. The only way that spiritual fatherhood is possible is through cooperation with the grace of Christ.
A spiritual father is one who is aware of the working of grace in his life and assists others in recognizing the movement of grace in their own. Good spiritual fatherhood does not just happen. Yes, for me, after ordination to the priesthood, people started to call me “Father.” It is true that one is configured to Christ in a unique way through the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Cooperation with the grace of the Sacrament is over a lifetime, though. One grows into spiritual fatherhood, even as a priest.
In the first few years of priesthood, I tried to be of service to others by being present to them in their sorrow and their joy. The most profound moments were in listening and accompanying others. I learned not to say much, but simply to be with them, to walk with them as they deepened their life in Christ.
Today, my approach to spiritual fatherhood is similar, but with the experience of walking with others sometimes for many years. I have found that they choose to be in such a relationship with me, not simply as a priest, but also as one who is a flawed follower of Christ. A good spiritual father does not claim perfection, but instead is very aware of his faults and failings, as well as the grace of Christ that is working in and through him. Pope Francis offers this consideration in Christus Vivit:
“An especially important quality in mentors is the acknowledgement of their own humanity – the fact that they are human beings who make mistakes: not perfect people but forgiven sinners” (246).
Good spiritual fathers are keenly aware that they are “forgiven sinners.” When that is forgotten by a spiritual father, then the focus becomes on self, not on Christ. He is the one who forgives sin and gives the grace to love unconditionally and universally for he, and he alone, is God, the Infinite Love.
Click here to read more reflections on fatherhood during the Year of St. Joseph.
When you hear the word “vocation” what comes to mind?
In my last year of college, vocation seemed like a puzzle to be solved. I put a lot of pressure on myself to figure out “what should I do with my life.” I met with a spiritual director and weighed several options, agonizing over how I would know which was the right choice. Although my spiritual director and many other people in my life tried to tell me that I didn’t have to figure out the entirety of my life just yet, I wasn’t listening. I had a very narrow view of vocation as something to be discerned once and only once. I thought, if you’ve done it right, you stick with your choice for your whole life. I imagined that God had my life mapped out for me and there was a very definite direction I should take; I just needed to figure out which it was.
Now, 11 years later, I realize just how much God’s grace has been at work in me in so many ways—especially in broadening my understanding of vocation. I’ve come to really appreciate that discerning one’s vocation is not like completing a task at which we can excel or fail. It’s not a question with a single right answer.
In fact, God’s plan for us is none other than to be holy, and to do so in ways specific to us, “to reflect and embody, at a specific moment in history, a certain aspect of the Gospel” (Gaudete et Exsultate, 19). The Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church speaks of this universal and personal call to holiness by saying that “all the faithful, whatever their condition or state, are called by the Lord – each in his or her own way – to that perfect holiness by which the Father himself is perfect” (Lumen Gentium, 11). Each and every one of us has this fundamental vocation, the one that underlies every other particular way in which God calls us to holiness. Holiness isn’t lived out in a single grand way possible for only a select few; “We are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves” (Gaudete et Exsultate, 14).
In Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis issues a powerful summons: “You too need to see the entirety of your life as a mission” (GE, 23). With this broader view of vocation, I can more readily recognize the multitude of ways in which God has drawn me to himself throughout the course of my life. I can discern how I am being called to holiness in this moment and reflect on how my response in the here and now is part of my greater life’s mission.
Now I understand vocation as more than a single call. It is, rather, living our lives in a constant awareness of and responsiveness to the promptings of the Lord, who draws us to himself. Vocation is not inward looking; it draws us outward to God and neighbor. This redirected gaze allows us to recognize and receive with gratitude the gifts we are given so that we can more freely and truly make a gift of ourselves. Such self-emptying love is what it means to be Christ-like, to be holy. It forces us to reframe our questions. Instead of asking, “What do I want to be?” or “What do I want to do with my life?” (as I kept asking myself in college), we can prayerfully discern “How is God calling me to make a gift of myself?” This certainly applies to my state in life, whether I am called to give of myself in marriage or religious life. But I also respond to this call to self-gift by carrying out my work with integrity and skill in the service of my brothers and sisters, by patiently teaching my little ones how to follow Jesus, by refusing to gossip, and by saying a kind word to the person I encounter on the street (to list a few examples from Gaudete et Exsultate 14- 16).
My life’s journey has taken a lot more turns than I could have anticipated those many years ago. Yet the Lord has made use of each step, big and small, to draw me ever closer to himself.
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“Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it’” (Mt 16:24-25).
This summer, I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to work as an intern for the Catholic Apostolate Center and collaborate on several catechetical projects with other staff members there. One of these projects was the creation of a new version of From Practicing Catholics to Apostles on Mission, a faith formation course for those who want to delve more deeply into their faith and become more actively involved in the Church. Since many of the program’s participants are young adults, drafting lessons for this course allowed me to reflect on the unique opportunities and challenges that come with speaking to young adults about the Faith. This task always involves a special focus on presenting Church teaching in a way that is clear, approachable, and attractive. But with this task comes a special challenge: how can we avoid the temptation to “water down” the faith or to omit or sugarcoat its more difficult truths? How can we imitate the most perfect preacher, who stated plainly: “Take up your cross and follow me” (Mt 16:24)?
One of the Apostles on Mission sessions on which I worked focuses on the universal call to holiness. It seems to me that this teaching is one that we must take care to proclaim in its fullness, especially when speaking to young people:
“The Lord Jesus, the divine Teacher and Model of all perfection, preached holiness of life to each and every one of His disciples of every condition…Thus it is evident to everyone, that all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity” (Lumen Gentium 40).
This message shatters the common assumption that holiness is attainable by only a few individuals who perform extraordinary works. It reveals that holiness consists instead in the “perfection of charity” and thus is truly possible for everyone, because although we cannot all accomplish great or miraculous deeds, we can all act with great love.
Proclaiming this universal call to holiness is particularly important because—while we hear the commandments over and over—"Love the Lord your God with all your heart…Love your neighbor as yourself”—a very subtle but serious temptation can creep in. Namely, we can be tempted to love only when it is easy, when we find the other person agreeable, when we think they deserve it. But in fact, the perfect love that Christ commands is often difficult. It is difficult to love God daily by resisting temptation, practicing self-denial, and committing ourselves to regular prayer. It is difficult to love our neighbor on a daily basis by treating them with patience, forgiving their faults, and making a generous gift of ourselves to them. Pope St. John Paul II summarized it well in his address to the young people of Boston:
“Real love is demanding. I would fail in my mission if I did not clearly tell you so. For it was Jesus—our Jesus himself—who said: ‘You are my friends if you do what I command you’ (Jn 15:14). Love demands effort and a personal commitment to the will of God. It means discipline and sacrifice, but it also means joy and human fulfillment” (Holy Mass on Boston Common, 1979).
St. John Paul II not only acknowledges the difficulty of Christ-like love, he also emphasizes that he has a duty to proclaim this difficulty to the Church. He recognized that if we are not warned that “real love is demanding,” we will inevitably discover this reality through our own experience. And if we are not prepared for difficulty, one of two tragic results will likely occur. Finding love demanding, we may be tempted to believe that Jesus didn’t really mean “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48) and might ease up and only love when it is easy. Alternatively, we might be tempted to give up in despair, like the rich young man of the Gospel who was taken aback by Jesus’ demanding invitation and “went away sad” (Mk 10:22).
Although we must proclaim to young people the difficulty of what Jesus commands, we can also provide them with the hope that enables all Christians to rise to the challenge that lies before them. The first hopeful reminder is this: God is the one who sanctifies us, who always gives us the grace we need to fulfill his call. Cooperating with this grace does require that we are willing to say “yes” to the daily opportunities to undertake the difficult work of loving. But the further hopeful news is that God generously provides hundreds of these opportunities every day. As Pope Francis illustrates in his apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate:
“This holiness to which the Lord calls you will grow through small gestures. Here is an example: a woman goes shopping, she meets a neighbour and they begin to speak, and the gossip starts. But she says in her heart: ‘No, I will not speak badly of anyone.’ This is a step forward in holiness. Later, at home, one of her children wants to talk to her about his hopes and dreams, and even though she is tired, she sits down and listens with patience and love. That is another sacrifice that brings holiness. Later she experiences some anxiety, but recalling the love of the Virgin Mary, she takes her rosary and prays with faith. Yet another path of holiness. Later still, she goes out onto the street, encounters a poor person and stops to say a kind word to him. One more step.”
A third word of hope: Every time we take one of these “steps”—loving even when it is hard—we train our heart, like runners training for a marathon. With each step, our heart grows stronger, and it becomes easier to love the next time.
One more message of hope can be found at the end of St. John Paul II’s words that I quoted before: “[Love] means discipline and sacrifice, but it also means joy and human fulfillment” (my emphasis). This message was closely echoed by another great saint of modern times: St. Teresa of Calcutta. She wrote: “We should ask ourselves, ‘Have I really experienced the joy of loving?’ True love is love that causes us pain, that hurts, and yet brings us joy. That is why we must pray and ask for the courage to love.” When we consider the words of both saints, there initially seems to be a contradiction—how can love cause both pain and joy? But this is ultimately the same paradox that lies at the heart of the Gospel: Christ promises that only he who “loses his life for my sake will find it” (Mt 16:25)—that is, only if we “lose” our life in self-giving can we find lasting fulfillment in this life and eternal happiness in the next.
It takes courage and great faith to believe in this promise of Christ, but there are two places we can find evidence to support it. The first is in the witness of St. John Paul II and St. Teresa of Calcutta themselves, along with the countless other saints whose lives witnessed to the truth of their words. These men and women loved with total generosity even when it was difficult; they faced many additional sufferings, and yet they were filled with joy—a joy so radiant and constant that it could not have been a mere appearance. We can also find evidence in our own experience that proves the opposite side of this truth: when we have tried to fill our hearts and lives with things that aren’t God, we have all experienced how quickly happiness flees and gives way to emptiness and sorrow. By witnessing the joy of the saints and recalling our own sorrow when we deviate from the path they trod, we can trust that over time, as we continue the demanding work of striving to love as Christ loved, He will gradually reshape our hearts and help us experience the joy that sacrificial loving brings.
In summary, when we share the Gospel with young people, we must take care to speak the fullness of the truth and tell them of both the joy and suffering that accompanies the lives of those who follow Christ. By doing so, we help them avoid the fate of those who excuse themselves or fall into despair when they feel the weight of the cross. But even more, doing so helps them find the narrow path that leads to the life they most desire, “life in its fullness,” as St. John Paul II describes:
“Jesus does not ask us to give up living, but to accept a newness and fullness of life that only He can give. The human being has a deep-rooted tendency to ‘think only of self,’ to regard one’s own person as the center of interest and to see oneself as the standard against which to gauge everything. One who chooses to follow Christ, on the other hand…looks on life in terms of gift and gratuitousness, not in terms of conquest and possession. Life in its fullness is only lived in self-giving, and that is the fruit of the grace of Christ: an existence that is free and in communion with God and neighbor” (Message for World Youth Day XVI, 2001).
It has been a great gift to collaborate with the Catholic Apostolate Center in their efforts to help others recognize and respond to God’s call to holiness, to the fullness of life. May all of us—of every age—heed this call. May we have the courage to proclaim the fullness of the truth, the strength to love when it is difficult, and the confident hope that doing these things will bring the profound peace and joy that we seek.
“He placed himself, in the words of Saint John Chrysostom, “at the service of the entire plan of salvation”. With praise as high as this, Pope Francis described Saint Joseph and his unique place between the Mother of God and the Son.
If Saint Joseph occupies a pivotal role in the divine plan, then his role in my family is just as special. Both of my godsons have the middle name of Joseph - as do I, and my father, his brother, and their father before them. In our family, Joseph is first and foremost a protector.
In the Apostolic Letter declaring the Year of Saint Joseph, the Holy Father describes St. Joseph in this way: “Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way.”
A fundamental element of being a godfather, born from the promises made at Baptism, is the obligation to watch over my godchildren. The daily exercise of this responsibility occurs through prayer. Since the start of the pandemic eighteen months ago, it’s been next to impossible to see my godchildren in person or to be a physical presence in their lives. Consequently, my responsibility to keep them in daily prayer has become doubly important.
Morning prayer for my three godchildren is a cornerstone of my daily routine. That prayer has been a constant for me, even when other elements of my routine undergo the dry spells that are part and parcel of the spiritual life. This steadfast but gentle responsibility - prayer for my godchildren - has been a source of sanctification for me. In this, I am privileged to follow in the footsteps of Saint Joseph, who had the unique grace to help raise the Son of God and to be shaped and formed by this responsibility.
Beyond protection, Saint Joseph is a model for godfathers by dint of his vigilance. While not strictly a virtue, this watchfulness is closely related to the virtues of prudence, fortitude, and temperance. The Gospel of Luke puts it thus: “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit” (Lk 12:35). Matthew relates the command of God in even more explicit terms: “Get up, take the child and his mother” (Mt 2:13). While taking nothing away from the Blessed Mother’s incomparable “Fiat”, Joseph exemplifies the ability of responsiveness to God’s call in the face of uncertainty. For me as a godfather, this means living in such a way that I can be responsive to my own godchildren. That might mean being prepared to travel long distances in order to make a sacramental celebration or a birthday. As my godchildren mature and explore their faith, it may also mean being an additional source of counsel (or a source of comfort to stressed-out parents!). Whatever the call may be, the response is the same: be prepared to answer without hesitation, as Saint Joseph did.
I would be remiss by not mentioning that Joseph’s care for the Blessed Mother is an example of paramount importance for any godfather seeking to advance his own spiritual life and that of his godchildren!
One final element of contemplation for me as a godfather is the title of Saint Joseph the Worker, particularly as it relates to the life of Christ. Through his steady and diligent work, Saint Joseph was a model and example for Our Lord, who himself spent the first thirty years of his life laboring as a carpenter and preparing for his ministry. In the words of Pope Leo XIII, writing in the encyclical Rerum Novarum:
“This is enforced by what we see in Christ Himself, who, ‘whereas He was rich, for our sakes became poor’; (18) and who, being the Son of God, and God Himself, chose to seem and to be considered the son of a carpenter - nay, did not disdain to spend a great part of His life as a carpenter Himself. ‘Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?’(19)”
To this, let me add the words of the Holy Father in his apostolic letter, Patris Corde: “Joseph is certainly not passively resigned, but courageously and firmly proactive. In our own lives, acceptance and welcome can be an expression of the Holy Spirit’s gift of fortitude.”
Saint Joseph is an exemplar not only of the ability to respond immediately to God’s call when it comes, but also of the fortitude and diligence to work patiently and well until that call comes. Through his example, we godfathers are reminded to “trust in the slow work of God”, confident that in prayer, labor, and - above all - openness to God’s voice, we can strive to be as Saint Joseph was: “at the service of the entire plan of salvation.”
Pope Francis eloquently writes in his post-synodal exhortation Christus Vivit, “After this brief look at the word of God, we cannot just say that young people are the future of our world. They are its present.” In the last decade, and especially since Christus Vivit was promulgated in 2019, the Church has sought to help the Church’s youth become protagonists in their own right. This is seen in many parish, diocesan, and archdiocesan initiatives to form young Church leaders. Some examples of this include creating new diocesan offices for youth and young adult ministries and the growth of many high school and collegiate campus ministry offices. Nevertheless, young people crave young role models for the Faith. Pope Francis recognized this and listed many examples, including Mary, St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Joan of Arc. In this blog, I wish to discuss three saints in particular--Bl. Carlo Acutis, St. Jose Sanchez del Rio, and St. Therese of Lisieux—and how their witnesses are a model for young people (especially youth leaders) who wish to dive deeper into a relationship with Christ and his Church.
Young people everywhere crave to see an aspect of themselves in the people they look up to, and Bl. Carlo Acutis is a soon-to-be saint who allows young people to see commonalities between themselves and the saints. Carlo was a typical Italian teenager who played soccer and video games. Nevertheless, he also made great strides for God in his work, uploading Eucharistic miracles to a website to spread devotion to the Body and Blood of Christ. He was called “an influencer for God” by his mother in an America Magazine article. Bl. Carlo stands as a soon-to-be saint accessible to the Church’s youth because of his young age and his connectedness to 21st-century culture. Bl. Carlo Acutis models for youth leaders how evangelization must occur within the culture and modern media, not from an ivory tower of formal theology and scholarship. The Gospel must be spread in a way that all generations can appreciate, and Bl. Carlo accomplished that with the creation of his website.
Another young person who bore witness to the Faith in the context of his own time was St. José Sánchez del Rio. Saint José was a young man growing up in Mexico during the Cristero Wars. The Cristero Wars were a series of conflicts between the Mexican President Plutarco Calles's secularist government and Cristero fighters (formally known as the National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty). The Calles government imposed the 1917 Mexican Constitution, which contained anticlerical policies and sought state atheism. Catholics across the country opposed this and began resisting through liturgical services and military resistance against the Mexican army. Saint José was a young man during the war and wanted to fight to defend his Faith. His mother, however, refused to let him formally join the Cristero Movement. This made St. José contribute to the movement indirectly and attend Mass whenever possible. Nevertheless, when a Cristero General lost his horse in battle, young José offered his, and this led to his imprisonment by the Mexican army. After being tortured to renounce his Faith, José refused and was martyred. St. José Sánchez del Rio’s witness to the Faith is one of the best examples of what a Catholic is called to do by Christ: witness the Faith within your own culture and times while not renouncing our Lord. Despite his young age, St. José believed in Christ’s love and graces, and that gave him the strength to be countercultural and stand with Jesus instead of with the popular culture and the government that stood against Him.
Finally, St. Thérèse of Lisieux remains one of the most commanding forces in the Church’s lexicon for youth witnesses. Becoming a Carmelite at age fifteen, Thérèse began to pray incessantly and pioneered her famous “Little Way” for the spiritual life. St. Thérèse’s “Little Way” seeks to help people encounter Christ in their day-to-day activities and pray to Jesus with childlike dependency. St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s powerful devotion to the Eucharist, prayer, and a joyful attitude allow many to realize that one can be close to Christ no matter what they are doing. St. Thérèse stands as a strong role model for young Catholics since her relationship to Christ reached such profound depths at her young age.
Young people crave role models in the Church, and older generations can find powerful witnesses and wisdom from young Catholics as well. The Church has been and must remain dedicated to telling and promoting the stories of young saints to inspire every generation to become protagonists in the Church and saints for Christ’s kingdom. Young people can be inspired by these saints since they can “…offer the Church the beauty of youth by renewing her ability to ‘rejoice with new beginnings, to give unreservedly of herself, to be renewed and to set out for ever greater accomplishments’” (Pope Francis, Christus Vivit).
During my formative years, I had the distinct privilege of spending time with my grandads and even one great-grandad. In the late 1950’s and ‘60’s, our pace of life and activities was very different from today. We attended school and church, but a lot of our time was centered around our home. Even more unique were our regular visits with extended family on a weekly basis. This afforded me time to be in the company of my grandparents frequently. I listened to their talk about work and how they solved problems and the things that occupied their time. I enjoyed accompanying my dad’s dad on outings to pick blackberries and then had the pleasure of helping in the process to make wine in his cellar.
My Grandpop was a nuts-and-bolts kind of man, always busy with his work as caretaker of the cemetery, keeping their only vehicle (an old Ford truck) running, and maintaining the house where he and my grandmom raised thirteen children. It was fascinating learning things from him. I would follow him around and help load coal into their furnace and collect items from the cool cellar that housed their canned vegetables and held Grandpop’s workbench. He liked to show any of us grandkids the things he did for work, as well as the projects he worked on, such as building cedar benches for anyone who wanted one and making wine from the fruits he picked. They lived a hop, skip and a jump from the monastery church and school where they walked to 6am daily Mass. By society’s standards, Pop was minimally educated and made a meager wage that kept them in the lower economic level their entire lives. The gifts we received were hand-made and simple, but lots of time was invested in being family together. I loved being in Grandpop’s shadow and considered the cemetery near their house to be the most magical place in my world with its little streams and bridges and huge fir trees and rolling hills. Amongst those resting in peace, my dad and his twelve siblings grew up under the tutelage of my grandpop’s calloused hands and the soft-spoken voice of my grandmom.
My grandmom’s parents lived just three blocks away, and my great-granddad was a successful stone mason with a shop full of heavy, rough-hewn tools that carved important information into big pieces of granite for the deceased. As an adult, I realize how fortunate I was to have enjoyed weekly visits to my great-grandparents. Great-granddad was a tall, polite, and loving man. He would sit me atop a piece of stone and include me in the conversations with my dad and other family. He had two framed pictures over the desk in his shop – the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. As a kid, I always felt that they were watching me. These images hanging in a prominent place in his shop spoke volumes about the faith my great-granddad had. No matter how busy he was, he had a way of making me feel cherished when we came by. And a visit never ended until he sent us up to the house to get a drink and a slice of cake from great-grandmom.
My mom’s dad was another wonderful grandfather with whom I spent much time while growing up. (I never met my grandmom because she died suddenly only three months after my parents were married.) Pop was a tall, handsome man who always wore a suit, and I mean always! He was retired from the phone company and had raised five children through the Depression era. His parents and aunt lived with them in a small but comfortable row home. Most of my time spent with Pop was at our house where he would come most days in the afternoons and stay through dinner. Sometimes we would pick him up at his apartment and I loved seeing his stuff. He was an avid follower of the Baltimore City Fire Department and had a squawk box to hear all the fire calls. He had boxes with index cards full of information on the different fire houses, calls, and each fireman. When my mom was growing up, he would pile the kids in his car and they would go watch the firemen fight fires. He supported the firemen with visits and gifts and had a deep respect for what they did for the community. I loved sitting at his feet in our living room listening to him tell stories of growing up in Baltimore and of his family. He was a regular member at our dinner table in his later years and always took an interest in my studies and in the things I was doing.
When my parents would go away on their annual business trip, Pop would come take charge of our household. He made flapjacks for breakfast, walked me to the school bus stop and would meet me there each afternoon. I didn’t need an escort, but it was his way of sending me off. He played cards with us and told stories and made the best stew I’ve ever eaten! He made sure to remind me to say my prayers and he took us to church. Pop was present for all the holidays throughout the years, along with a lot of aunts, uncles, and cousins. Our house was the typical gathering place for my mom’s siblings and so I guess that’s why Pop always came over. In his later years when he could no longer drive, my parents wanted him to move in with us, but he insisted on his own independence and lived out his days, until he died at 89, in his apartment. As a kid, I never thought twice about Pop always being at our home. As an adult, I look back and see the treasure I had in being loved by a man who had all the time in the world to talk. It impacted me more than I realized. Mom and dad took care of the needs of the family, but Pop took the time to share himself with me and take an interest in what I was thinking as a young girl trying to figure out what was important in life. A generation removed, Pop made it abundantly clear how important each member of the family was to him, which instilled in me a strong desire for continued close family bonds in my adult life.
I then watched how my dad became granddad to my six children. He was busy seven days a week and lots of nights running his business and providing for our family when I was a child, but as a granddad, he learned how to switch gears and devote attention to his grandchildren through time spent together. He took his role as grand patriarch seriously and lived out sharing the gospel of Jesus with all his grands in very simple but tangible ways. He was a great encourager of all the pursuits of each one and never hesitated to share his testimony of how God helped him on a daily basis to do what he was supposed to do. He shared prayers and taught them the power of talking with God all day long. And when my parents visited for two to three weeks each Christmas season, everyone could see how he laid out his days. He would be seen in a quiet chair early in the mornings with his well-worn prayer book praying his prayers. Then he and mom would attend morning Mass with any of us who would accompany them. He joined in our family prayer time and nightly Rosary.
I have also enjoyed witnessing my husband embrace the role of Pops to our sweet grandchildren. He rejoices in the gift of each one and prays daily for them to always hear and respond to God’s call on their lives. He loves playing with them and particularly sharing his love of music with them.
The treasure of knowing my granddads and being so loved by them has been a gift in my life that I know has helped me understand the love God our Father has for me. The beauty of the continuous bond from great-grandfather to grandfather to father is powerful and assures me of my heritage. The greatest lesson I learned from these loving men was to invest yourself in others and especially to build up and encourage each member. It doesn’t seem mighty or grand, but it strengthens the foundation of our lives and nurtures deep, holy growth in our specific God-ordained purpose. The richness of a grandfather’s love and care is a gift in the family. Their patriarchal leadership and security are God’s design for how families are enjoined together through the generations and meant to relate. I have had the privilege of this delightful heritage and my prayer is that it will continue to be nourished by the fathers to come in our family.
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We come in all colors, shapes, sizes. We come with many different names: Papa, Gramps, Granddaddy, Baba, Nonno or maybe even Skipper. The one thing we all share is our unconditional love for our grandchildren.
One of my earliest memories of my grandfather Tony (Gramps) was sitting on his lap as he prayed the rosary. As l tried to pull it from his hands, he clutched his beads even tighter. I guess that was my first memory of prayer. When my wife and I had our first child, Gramps told me the 3 greatest things a grandfather can give his grandchildren are love, spoiling them rotten, and memories. I cherish the memories of Gramps to this day: sleeping over at my grandparents’ house, having my picture taken with him at my First Holy Communion, cutting his grass and him giving me a quarter, him asking me to sit next to him at his and grandma’s 40th anniversary dinner, and even taking my then-fiancée when I went to shovel his snow. These are some of the memories he created for me.
My dad and father-in-law enhanced the grandfather experience for me as I watched them with our children and their cousins. Birthday parties, school plays, receiving the sacraments or graduations, grandpas were always there. At his grandkids’ Confirmations, my father-in-law would say “Another soldier for Christ”–adding more memories to my collection. l wonder what memories Jesus had of His grandfathers Joachim (the Patron Saint of Grandfathers) and Jacob, St. Joseph’s father. Did He pull on their prayer beads, sleep over at their houses, sit next to them at special occasions? As it becomes my turn to make memories, I pray to St. Joseph that my 4 precious grandchildren will have memories: a picture of us at their First Holy Communion, attending Mass together, me walking them to school or picking them up after school (well maybe after the pandemic), me telling them a corny Papa joke, them giving me a running hug, me spoiling them rotten or maybe even them tugging on my rosary. The aforementioned men have set the bar very high; it is my goal to follow in their footsteps. I remain extremely grateful every day that l have been entrusted to be the Papa of Mabel, Anna, Teddy and Lucy. In the year that Pope Francis has declared the Year of St. Joseph, my best hope would be that St. Joseph gives me the strength to teach them the ways of the Gospel and lead them down the path towards Christ.
To me St. Joseph was like an unsung hero. His devotion must have been unwavering. Asked to be the earthly father to Jesus and husband of Mary, WOW!! what a responsibility. Teaching Jesus his trade as a carpenter, teaching Him to pray, preparing Him for manhood, things that many may overlook. St. Joseph simply did the things asked of him by God. God’s love shows through in picking Joseph for this oh so important role in Jesus’ life and the life of the Church. The more I read about St Joseph, the second J of the JMJ (Jesus, Mary and Joseph) I wrote at the top of my school papers long ago, the more awesome I think he is. He did so much without questioning his role. Thank you, St Joseph, for being an inspiration and guiding light as I navigate the waters of being a grandfather.
St Joseph, pray for us (especially us grandfathers).
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Over the last several years of my life, I have read, studied, and written hundreds of pages about what Pope Francis meant when he said in Evangelii Gaudium that “The Church will have to initiate everyone – priests, religious and laity – into this ‘art of accompaniment’ which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other” (169). However, nothing has ever taught me more about accompaniment than one of the most special people I have ever known in my life: my grandmother.
My grandmother, Edith Lauritzen, was born a second-generation Irish Catholic in 1928 in Queens, New York. She was soft-spoken but had a hearty laugh that made an appearance in most conversations. Her favorite food was Chicken Parmesan, and she taught me the first prayers I ever learned. Sometimes, my grandmother would pick my sister and me up after school and treat us to ice cream. She would ask us about our day at school, and listen generously, as if the happenings of my sister’s and my days at elementary school were the most riveting and important things she could devote her time to.
I spent a good bit of my early childhood with my grandmother, and when my grandfather passed away, she moved in with my family to a small bedroom on the first floor of our home. In our house, my grandmother was a steady presence in my life; her warmth, laughter, and joy were always a comfort. I enjoyed spending time with her and would sometimes wake up early in the morning if I heard her making her breakfast of toast and coffee in the kitchen just so that I could spend time with her.
As I grew up, our shared Catholic faith became a topic of frequent conversation. In middle and high school, I remember spending hours talking with her in her bedroom. My grandmother’s room was small, with space only for her bed, dresser, and an armchair. The feeling of my foot falling asleep sticks with me as I reflect on talking with her, as sometimes our conversations lasted hours as I sat cross-legged on her wooden floor. Beyond some vague memories of the topics of prayer, the lives of the saints, and my hopes to visit St. Peter’s basilica one day, I do not remember anything specific about the topics of conversation. Rather, what rises to the surface in my memory of those conversations with my grandmother is her listening, her interest in my thoughts, and her joyful, warm presence that created the space for me to speak up and share my insights with a woman with 65 more years of life experience. Now, I look back and know that I might have spoken with a little too much certainty about God and the things of faith, and probably mused a little too grandiosely about my reflections on what certain Gospel readings meant. However, that didn’t matter to my grandmother.
This was the gift that my grandmother gave to me: taking my faith, questions, and thoughts seriously. My grandmother could have seen my early, inexperienced love of my faith as childish or naïve. Instead, I think she saw my faith as wisdom, blooming and in process, attempting to make sense of God and life. In front of my grandmother’s armchair and unbeknownst to us both, my vocation as a theologian and woman of faith was being nurtured and cultivated.
After my first year at college, my family had to move my grandmother to an assisted living home as she needed more care than we could provide at my house. I was devastated. My home felt like it lost a little bit of warmth. However, that first summer after my freshman year of college, I made it part of my daily routine to visit my grandmother. I spent afternoons with her, listening to her thoughts and reflections on her life, her stories about growing up with the other children in her neighborhood in Queens, and her relationship with my grandfather. We laughed as she told stories about living in New York, what it was like to go to Mass in Latin, and why she loved St. Thérèse (her favorite saint).
Before moving to the assisted living home, my grandmother had never lived away from home, so sometimes, she would cry. I learned in those moments that what was important was not me offering some nugget of wisdom from our faith that would help her to reframe her thinking, but for me to be there, hold her hand, and be present. In the days after those afternoons where there were more tears than laughter in her voice, I would make sure to bring her a cup of chocolate ice cream to lift her spirits. It did not take long for me to realize it was now my turn to accompany my grandmother, just as she had accompanied me in my childhood and teenage years.
Two summers later, my grandmother passed away. It was one of the most painful days of my life. At the same time, I was overjoyed at the thought of my grandmother getting to experience something so much better than our hours of conversation together about our faith: God himself. At my grandmother’s funeral Mass, one of the hymns my family selected was “O God Beyond All Praising.” While the entire hymn is a perfect way to describe the gift that my grandmother was to everyone she encountered, the words of the second verse have always particularly stuck out to me when I think about her:
“The flower of earthly splendor
in time must surely die,
its fragile bloom surrender
to you the Lord most high;
but hidden from all nature
the eternal seed is sown -
though small in mortal stature,
to heaven's garden grown”
In reflecting upon my relationship with my grandmother, I think about how her accompaniment of me planted seeds in my life that continue to bloom and grow. Though she was older and weaker, my grandmother passed on to me the gift of faith, a gift that is an eternal reality that we share, and that I hope will bring us together in the next life. Even when my faith was more composed of immature certainty and over-zealous explanations of Scripture, my grandmother saw more than that. And, when it was my turn to accompany my grandmother in the last years of her life, she gave me the gift of continuing to grow these seeds of faith through my own cultivation of patient listening and presence.
For me, my grandmother is a model of accompaniment, and was a witness to what Pope Francis writes in Evangelii Gaudium of the listening and patience required in accompaniment: “Only through such respectful and compassionate listening can we enter on the paths of true growth and awaken a yearning for the Christian ideal: the desire to respond fully to God’s love and to bring to fruition what he has sown in our lives (171).” Through my grandmother’s love, I learned to listen to God and respond to His love. I know the seeds of my faith are continuing to grow and bloom even after my grandmother’s death as she accompanies me with her prayers.
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