Changing diapers. Making dinner menus for the week. Vacuuming raisins out of the deepest crevices of the car’s backseat. Often, the daily tasks of running a household and raising a toddler feel more to me like mindless drudgery than fruitful and productive labor. My inner monologue ends up sounding like this: My husband works eight hours a day at a meaningful job that he enjoys, and his income puts a roof over our heads, food on the table, and clothes on our backs. And what do I do? Sweep floors that are just going to instantly get dirty again and scrub toothpaste off the bathroom mirror—which is my own fault because I left the toddler alone while he brushed his teeth this morning.
Lately I had found myself searching for examples of saints whose primary vocation was parenthood and family life. And I began to read The Journey of Our Love, a collection of letters written by St. Gianna Beretta Molla and her husband, Pietro.
Prior to reading the letters, all I had known about St. Gianna was that one of her pregnancies was extremely difficult and that she ultimately sacrificed her life for her child. I thought this was the only reason that she was canonized in 2004. But as I read the letters St. Gianna and her husband wrote to each other, I gradually realized that Gianna’s self-sacrifice was only the final heroic act of a life filled with profound joy and holiness.
On the surface, the Mollas’ married life looks quite typical for the contemporary western world: St. Gianna was a pediatrician who split her time between her clinic and her duties at home, while Pietro traveled frequently for his job as an upper-level administrator for a manufacturing company. Their older children suffered from persistent, but not life-threatening, health issues like severe reflux and hip misalignment. Where the Mollas differ from most modern parents is in their deep devotion to God and in the trust, love, and joy that flowed from placing Christ at the center of their lives.
The more I read of St. Gianna and Pietro’s letters, the more I was struck by my own inability to see the greatness that is possible within the most mundane, repetitive, and irritating aspects of domestic life. St. Gianna and her husband did not found any religious orders, nor were they publicly martyred for their faith, nor were they brilliant theologians. Rather, they were ordinary people whose love for Christ permeated every aspect of their lives.
One of my favorite examples of St. Gianna’s quiet holiness is when one of Pietro’s overseas business trips, already over a month long, was extended by several weeks. Gianna initially reacted as many wives would do and “had a good cry” (page 209). But then, rather than wallowing in her loneliness or in the difficulties of parenting alone, she writes that she “offered this sacrifice to the Lord for you [Pietro] so that he might protect you during your continual flights, and for the baby we are expecting, so it will be born beautiful and healthy.”
Pietro, too, often writes that while he suffers from the long separations from his wife and children, he offers those sufferings so that he and his family will continue to be blessed. Neither St. Gianna nor her husband ever express a sense of doubt about the apparent banality of their lives—they accept their ordinary trials with grace and humility, and are quick to turn their frustrations or sadness back into thankfulness for the good God has granted them in their lives.
Reading the Mollas’ letters helped me see that, like St. Gianna and her husband, I am called to be holy in every aspect of my ordinary and seemingly unremarkable life— whether it be caring for a toddler with a persistent cold or doing my fifth load of laundry in two days. For most of us, we are called to be saints not through grand gestures of faith, but in the love with which we embrace the ordinary burdens of our everyday lives.
Question for Reflection: What are some ordinary tasks in your everyday life that can help you become an everyday saint?
In Pope Francis’ recent exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, he concludes with a prayer to the Holy Family. The first part of the prayer reads, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, in you we contemplate the splendor of true love; to you we turn with trust.” In just those few words, we are reminded of the importance of the Holy Family; they are the perfect reflection of true love. They exemplify to us what it means to love God and one another.
Of course, it might be wise to first ask ourselves, “What is true love?” The dictionary defines it as a “strong affection for another” (Merriam-Webster). The author Victor Hugo once equated love to joy when he said, “The greatest happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved” (Les Miserables). For our purposes, let us take the definition straight out of the Gospels, that “no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:18). True love, then, is self-sacrificial. Having true love does not mean that we live to seek the best for ourselves. Rather, it means that we actively seek the best for others.
Using this understanding of true love, it becomes clearer how each member of the Holy Family exemplifies those qualities. St. Joseph is commonly known as the silent man of the Gospels in that he is never quoted. Yet, we see episodes that testify to his goodness. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that when Mary became pregnant, Joseph wanted to divorce her quietly to spare her from any shame. Nevertheless, he ended up taking Mary into his home at the urging of the angel (Matthew 1:18-24).
During this period of time, Mary as a pregnant and unwed mother was extremely scandalous. Joseph would have had every right to publicly humiliate her and cast her aside; in fact, accepting her in her state would have brought notoriety to himself. Yet, he took her into his home. He was willing to sacrifice his own reputation to show his devotion to Mary and to her son, an act of true love.
Mary, similarly, shows sacrificial love at the message of an angel. Luke’s Gospel tells us that the angel of the Lord appeared to her and announced that she would bear the “Son of the Most High” (Luke 1: 32). Mary was a teenager, just betrothed to Joseph. Before the arrival of the angel, she was assured a quiet life, a peaceful life. Accepting this message would change everything; Mary’s life ahead would be a vast unknown. Nevertheless, she simply replied, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1: 38). Mary showed true love by sacrificing herself in order for the Son of God to enter the world.
And, of course, it does not take much effort to think of a moment when Jesus displayed true love. In dying on the cross, he destroyed death itself; as the tomb was closed, he opened the gates of Heaven. His willful sacrifice is the ultimate example of “laying down one’s life.” Thus, each member of the Holy Family demonstrates to us, what it means to truly love. In Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict reminds us that “Love is the light – and in the end, the only light – that can always illuminate a world grown dim” (Deus Caritas Est, 39). As we move forward into the New Year, let us use the example of the Holy Family as our inspiration and bring a bit of light to our world. By being willing to sacrifice some of ourselves each day for the sake of others, we too can become models of true love.
Victor David is a collaborator with the Catholic Apostolate Center and a staff member at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.
“Keep multiplying your commitment because what Vincent Pallotti prophetically announced, the Second Vatican Council authoritatively confirmed, becoming a happy reality, and all Christians are authentic apostles of Christ and the church and in the world!" -St. John Paul II, 1986
Today we celebrate the feast day of Saint Vincent Pallotti. He is the patron of the Catholic Apostolate Center and his vision guides the Center in all of its works. Today is a special day in which we remember the works, deeds, and vision of St. Vincent Pallotti. I could write to you about his many deeds, his self-sacrificing attitude, or his disdain for honors, but I feel that that is not the proper way to celebrate him. He would be satisfied knowing that we are spending our time recounting his life, and would encourage us to go out into the world doing works of charity and preaching the gospel. St. Vincent Pallotti inspires me. Especially in this Year of Mercy, we need examples of people like him who have led merciful lives.
St. Vincent Pallotti had a very simple question that he asked, that took him a lifetime to answer: "Who is God and who am I before him?" Over the past few years this simple question posed by St. Vincent Pallotti has driven my prayer. Many of us have ‘stock’ answers for the first part of the question such as: God is the Father, He is all powerful and ever loving, He is the creator of the universe, the Unmovable mover, and the very essence of infinite love. But for St. Vincent Pallotti, these ‘stock’ answers are just that, stock. They're not the answers from the heart that St. Vincent Pallotti demands. He wants us to form the answer that only we can answer. He then asks us to find ourselves in this context. Let us ponder how we are to respond to his question because the two are intimately connected. At every stage of our lives, this answer is challenged. I invite you to take it back to prayer every single time you pray.
"Learn from the Lord to be merciful to your brethren. Trust you will receive from Him a loving and compassionate heart." –St. Vincent Pallotti, 1833
St. Vincent Pallotti expressed that we need to show mercy to all and led by example. As a priest, he would minister to anyone in need. He would visit prisoners, revolutionaries, students, popes, and future popes. He gave himself completely to those in need and wanted those around him to do the same. St. Vincent Pallotti’s example invites us to express mercy even when it seems impossible to do so. This is the way to serve all.
The spirituality of St. Vincent Pallotti is relevant to us today. His writings on mercy, for example, sound like they could be quotes from Pope Francis and not the writings from over 180 years ago. In my own spiritual life, St. Vincent Pallotti’s vision inspires me to act with the merciful heart that reflects the power of God's infinite love to all, no matter who they are. This manifests itself in my interactions with my family, friends, coworkers, and anyone I meet. I also make sure that I give back to the community by volunteering and serving others. We can also show mercy to anyone with a simple smile. In times when I feel uninspired and defeated by the world, I can turn to St. Vincent for a quote or gesture that gets me through the challenge. He has revived my faith, rekindled my charity, formed me into an apostle, and will continue to do so every day of my life by leading me to Christ.
St. Vincent Pallotti’s vision is as relevant today as it was over 180 years ago. We at the Catholic Apostolate Center and Pallottine apostolates all over the world continue to be inspired by his work. We thank God for this great Saint.
May the charity of Christ urge us on!
For more information on St. Vincent Pallotti and his spirituality, please visit our Pallotti Portal.
To learn more about the Union of the Catholic Apostolate, please click here.
In my own prayer this summer, I’ve been using a collection of prayers from the great American Catholic writer, Flannery O’Connor. The prayers were part of a journal that was recently found among her papers. They are the prayers of a young struggling writer who wants her faith to inform her writing and her writing to be a work of faith. The collection is called A Prayer Journal.
In one of the journal entries she is writing about the importance of a thread in writing a novel. The thread, she writes is “a view of the world behind it & the most important single item under this view of [the] world is the conception of love—divine, natural, & perverted” (O’Connor 30). She continues to reflect on how many of our great writers, Freud, Proust, Lawrence “have located love in the human & there is no need to question their location; however, there is no need either to define love as they do—only as desire, since this precludes Divine Love, which while it too may be a desire, is a different kind of desire—Divine desire—and is outside of man and capable of lifting him up to itself” (O’Connor 30).
O’Connor saw this way of defining love as primarily an emotion as a real problem for the modern heart, which was becoming increasingly “divorced from faith” (O’Connor 31). She writes “The modern man isolated from faith, from raising his desire for God into a conscious desire, is sunk into the position of seeing physical love as an end in itself” (O’Connor, 31). This, though written more than 50 years ago, is at the heart of the debate today on the definition and meaning of marriage.
Recently, I was asked to be part of a panel at the Catholic Information Center reflecting on the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage. I was asked to address the theological and pastoral implications of the decision. One of the pastoral implications is both a challenge and an opportunity to give witness to that which makes a sacramental marriage different. I suggest what makes a sacramental marriage different is the way in which the Church understands love. As Flannery O’Connor writes, the love we are called to share in marriage is a divine love. Married love is a self-sacrificing and self-giving imitation of Jesus’ self-giving love. The married love of man and woman couple is a visible sign for the world of God’s faithful and fruitful love. What made this presentation so interesting was the centrality of defining what love means and what love has to do with marriage. Please follow this link to view the complete presentation which includes President John Garvey of The Catholic University of America and Helen Alvaré, of George Mason University.
Susan Timoney is Secretary for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns for the Archdiocese of Washington, teaches spirituality for Saint Joseph’s College Online, and a Catholic Apostolate Center Advisor.
This blog post was first published on August 9th on the St. Joseph’s College of Maine Theology Faculty Blog. Click here to learn more about our cooperative alliance with St. Joseph’s College Online.
“Wow, you got your hands full.”
If you’re a parent, it’s possible that you have heard this statement thrown in your direction before. My wife and I, as we approach our seventh wedding anniversary, have three children. I find it amazing when people say “you got your hands full” when I am only holding one of my children. Imagine if they saw me when all three were climbing on me at the same time, or when they’re hungry and in a seemingly rehearsed chorus they ask for different foods in harmony.
With the Third Extraordinary Synod of Bishops set to meet this Fall, Pope Francis and bishops from around the world will be discussing issues related to marriage and family life. I believe that the Catholic Church’s vision for married life offers a fresh and engaging perspective for our contemporary world. St. John Paul II declares, “The communion of love between God and people, a fundamental part of the Revelation and faith experience of Israel, finds a meaningful expression in the marriage covenant which is established between a man and a woman” (Familiaris Consortio 12). The approaching synod has caused me to reflect on how I live my vocation to married life.
In his book Divine Likeness, Cardinal Marc Ouellet suggests that since Vatican II and St. John Paul II, “the theology of marriage has been developed in terms of ‘gift’…” (Ouellet 150-151). Men and women are created in the image of God (cf. Genesis 1:26-27). One of the great theological insights of Vatican II was the idea that “man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself” (Gaudium et Spes 24). Only through a gift of self can people find their true purpose and meaning in life. This is because a total self gift both participates in and manifests the divine life to which we’re invited.
Many of us are familiar with St. John Paul II’s Wednesday audiences which have become what we call the “Theology of the Body.” The giving of oneself in marriage, including in the conjugal act, is discussed in terms of a total gift of oneself. In a marriage covenant, husband and wife can manifest Trinitarian love, and the communion to which all people are drawn. For a husband or wife to hold back anything would be a betrayal of the communion which they’re guided by the Holy Spirit to manifest.
Cardinal Angelo Scola in The Nuptial Mystery draws from St. John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” and describes how the perichoresis of the Triune God is based on total self-giving. This is described beautifully in the following:
Communio personarum exists in its perfection in the Three in One, because the Father gives himself completely to the Son without keeping anything of his divine essence for himself… The Son himself gives back the same, perennial divine essence. This exchange of love between the two is so perfect as to be fruitful in a pure state: it gives rise to another person, the Holy Spirit (donum doni) (Scola, 131).
The Father completely gives everything He is to the Son; the Son completely gives Himself back in totality to the Father. Their self-giving love is so total and so perfect that it is fruitful and a third Person arises, the Holy Spirit.
Cardinal Scola makes the connection between this Trinitarian relationship and the relationship between husband and wife. A husband and wife can give a total gift of self, offering all that they are, and in the context of the conjugal act, it is possible that a new person can be created. But Cardinal Ouellet also mentions that whether or not a new child is conceived, the love of the spouses is fruitful in that they are manifesting the Trinitarian gift of self (cf. Ouellet 172).
There is an element of sacrifice involved here. The spouses freely commit to each other, accepting the new life if God should bless them with a child. However, if a couple experiences difficulty in conceiving, they also accept the sacrifice associated with not being able to bear children. In both cases, the spouses who completely give of themselves in love have the opportunity to offer themselves as a spiritual sacrifice to the Lord (cf. Romans 12:1) and to participate in the economy of salvation by manifesting Trinitarian love through a gift of self.
So my response to my interlocutors should be “Yes, I have my hands full: they’re full with my gift of self to the Lord. I give Him all that I am in loving surrender in an act of self-emptying gift-giving aimed at being drawn deeper into the mystery of the Trinitarian communio personarum, and this participation in the divine life penetrates who I am, giving me the grace and love to offer myself as a self gift to my wife.” Do you think that would get their attention?
Either way, what is essential to remember is that God invites us to participate in His very own divine life and we can experience true love through sincere acts of self gift.
Edward Trendowski is Coordinator for Catechetical Resources for the Diocese of Providence and teaches pastoral theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.
This blog post was first published on the St. Joseph’s College of Maine Theology Faculty Blog. Click here to learn more about our cooperative alliance with St. Joseph’s College Online