One of the things I love about Catholicism is that we celebrate the mysteries of our faith in a physical way.
Going to Mass, kneeling, standing, singing, receiving the Eucharist, hearing and proclaiming the Word of God, experiencing community after Mass or at parish events. Some of our liturgical feast days even emphasize the physical contact between us and the Divine. Think of reverencing the wood of the Cross on Good Friday or participating in a Eucharistic procession on Corpus Christi. Our faith is incarnational, and our bodies are important conduits for worship.
That’s part of the reason the last several months have been so difficult for so many. These physical elements of worship have been—largely—unavailable to us because of COVID-19 and the practice of physical and social distancing. Most of us have also been physically disconnected from our communities of faith, friends, and family. We’ve missed important events like birthdays, retirement parties, and even funerals. The emotional, spiritual, and psychological effects of this separation are very real and very serious.
And it’s been clear from the outset of this pandemic that the Church must take action to alleviate the impact of isolation, despair, and loneliness caused by this pandemic. But who will lead the charge? I find myself asking, what is the Church going to do about it? How will we get through this?
And then I realize, the Spirit is calling me. And, friends, the Spirit is calling you too. We’re not being called to wait around while someone else figures it out. God is calling us to figure this out together.
We must remember that we are the Church on earth, and we are being invited by the Spirit to cooperate with God’s grace to take action and serve others, right now. We can’t simply wait for someone else to help. Those of us who are baptized are called to be missionary disciples and, ultimately, saints. And this call comes with a personal responsibility to recognize that all our lives are interwoven as branches grafted onto the Vine, as various parts of one Body (1 Corinthians 12). We are connected to one another through our baptism into Christ. Paul says, “The body is not a single part, but many.” And because of this interconnectedness, when one part suffers, the whole body suffers. So, we’ve got to do something about that, because we’re called to be “doers”.
We are all suffering in some way during this pandemic. It’s not even possible to downplay that. And we all feel one another’s burdens. We especially feel our personal stresses and anxieties, day in and day out. I believe one of the answers to this anxiety and suffering is the beautiful work of spiritual accompaniment.
The call to spiritual accompaniment is incarnational and based on the love of Christ. Spiritual accompaniment urges us out of our own interior world and presses us to walk with our brother or sister in whatever situation they might find themselves. Pope Benedict XVI says that God’s love for humanity is so strong that “it turns God against himself, his love against his justice” (Deus Caritas Est, 10). How, then, can we demonstrate a reflection of this great, personal love to one another if we can’t be physically present to one another? I believe we must be creative and find ways to communicate our companionship to one another in meaningful ways. We can allow ourselves to be challenged by these questions while we reflect on this topic: Do I have the ability to be present to my suffering neighbor in any way today? Do I have the capacity to do charitable spiritual accompaniment during this pandemic?
I believe one effective way to spiritually accompany others as we remain physically distant is to ask challenging questions of others and engage in honest conversation. Though this may seem simple, “faith sharing” is a powerful way to be witnesses of God’s presence, and we all need to be reminded of God’s presence these days.
I think there are two simple, penetrating questions that can start fantastic spiritual conversations that open our eyes to the great works of God. They are:
The answers to both of these questions reveal our hearts, our spiritual yearnings, our joys, and our sorrows; the answers to both of these questions lead us to recognize God’s presence among us, either by contemplating where we’ve seen God or petitioning His aid through prayer. I want to challenge you to invite a friend or someone you’re close with to consider these questions and then to hear their answers. Perhaps you’ll be surprised at the way the Spirit guides the conversation.
I believe that through this simple practice of spiritual accompaniment, we will grow closer with one another, though distance or politics or ideologies may keep us apart. Loving and holy conversation is one way to begin healing the wounds caused over these last several months, and it is one way to accompany one another on the road as we travel strange, new paths together.
To learn more about spiritual accompaniment, please click here.
For more resources to deepen your faith during COVID-19, please click here.
On one wall of my office, above shelves crammed with books on various theological topics, there are several framed diplomas and certificates like you would find in a doctor or lawyer’s office. I rarely look at that wall for any length of time, but, the other day, I did. At various times in my life as I was working on degrees and certificates to gain needed credentials or accomplish my work more effectively, attaining them was very important to me. Now, as I look at the wall, I am not very much impressed by the framed paper that is there. Of course, the degrees and such do permit me to teach and provide credibility for some when I present or write. But people matter more. Much of my time today is spent less with books and papers and more with people. In many ways, I am living out what my father challenged me to do when I was in my twenties.
One Sunday night many years ago (I called each week on Sunday at 7 p.m.), I was talking with my father and whining that I might not get the final grade that I hoped in a course that semester. It was very important to me to have good grades, as if my worth depended on it. He listened very patiently and then said, “Frank, when someone knocks on the rectory door looking to talk with a priest, they will not care what grade you got. They will care only that you are willing to listen to them and be there for them.”
Of course, he was very right. My father, who was a successful business person without any degrees, taught me what is at the heart of faith and living faith – God and people. The divine aspects of faith are always mediated through people as individuals and as groups – their needs, their struggles, their concerns, their pain, their suffering, their joy, their love, their sorrow.
Faith is about people and their lives, their interaction with God, and their ultimate destiny. The teachings and customs of faith are not ends in themselves. Instead, they should lead to greater freedom and harmony among human beings. Yes, the twisting of teachings and customs of faith into something else has always happened over the millennia and continues to be a challenging reality. But that is simply using them for self-centered reasons, especially when used to justify hate and oppression. Faith ultimately is about freedom – the freedom to be fully human in union with God. It is a freedom given by God’s grace. Faith rooted in freedom moves outward to people and their needs. It is not focused on self, but on God and other people. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches in number 1742:
“The grace of Christ is not in the slightest way a rival of our freedom when this freedom accords with the sense of the true and the good that God has put in the human heart. On the contrary, as Christian experience attests especially in prayer, the more docile we are to the promptings of grace, the more we grow in inner freedom and confidence during trials, such as those we face in the pressures and constraints of the outer world. By the working of grace the Holy Spirit educates us in spiritual freedom in order to make us free collaborators in his work in the Church and in the world:
Almighty and merciful God,
in your goodness take away from us all that is harmful,
so that, made ready both in mind and body,
we may freely accomplish your will.”
After 26 years of living out my vocation to the priesthood as a Pallottine, I can say with confidence again how right my father was. My prayer is that I have accompanied those who needed a listening ear and walked alongside them on their journey of faith, and that I will always continue to do so. May we as Christians remember to put people over paper and strive to live out our faith in true freedom.
In the past few months, most of us have had to confront loss. Some of those losses have been very visible and salient, costing us our jobs, loved ones, and financial security. Others have been less tangible, and yet still impact large parts of our lives: important events have been placed on hold or canceled, relationships have been strained due to distance, and the feeling of having things to look forward to has dissipated. In the aftermath of stay-at-home orders and the pandemic, those of us with these less visible losses might find ourselves minimizing the pain or disappointment we feel. We might compare our smaller losses with those who have undoubtedly encountered more suffering than we have. We may feel that compared to others who have lost jobs, loved ones, homes, or security, we have no right to feel sadness, anger, or disappointment. We might even be preventing ourselves from experiencing grief.
Grief is something natural to our human journey. Like other emotions and emotional processes that we experience as human beings, grief provides us with information to our minds and bodies so that we can survive. In the face of loss, grief serves the purpose of communicating to us that we have encountered a lack of something that was formerly present and available to us. Whether it is the loss of a loved one, job, role on a team or in a workforce, friendship, feeling of security, or a sense of hope, grief helps communicate to us what is most important in our lives. In other words, grief helps inform us regarding what we set our hearts on and what brings us joy and safety. Grief not only touches the realm of the emotions and the psyche; it also is essential to our faith tradition. In Scripture, the words of grief are especially echoed in the psalms:
“My tears have been my bread day and night,
as they ask me every day, “Where is your God?”
Those times I recall
as I pour out my soul,
When I would cross over to the shrine of the Mighty One,
to the house of God,
Amid loud cries of thanksgiving,
with the multitude keeping festival.
Why are you downcast, my soul;
why do you groan within me?
Wait for God, for I shall again praise him,
my savior and my God.” (Psalm 42: 4-6)
We even see Jesus grieve several places in the Gospels, such as at the death of his friend Lazarus (John 11:35), and even at the suffering he was to experience to carry out our salvation (Luke 22:44). In Catholic funerals, we name and acknowledge the reality of grief in our prayers during our liturgical rites—an important part of believing in and living with Paschal hope.
Grief is not just an emotional process for death or large losses. While it is important to keep a clear perspective about the magnitude of the losses we experience in comparison to the suffering of others, grieving the less tangible and visible losses we experience is an important step to healing and cultivating our mental and emotional health. Additionally, ensuring that we allow ourselves to experience grief, even in response to comparatively smaller losses, can help us grow in holiness. Experiencing grief can help us to find new meaning in our faith, deepen our relationship with God and others, and continue to grow in knowledge of ourselves before God.
So, how are we to allow ourselves to grieve the smaller losses we have experienced in recent months? What are some ways to grieve the rescheduled or canceled graduations, weddings, and festivals, or the lack of opportunity to do the things we enjoy or to spend time with people whom we love?
Emotional Processing vs. Emotional Bypassing
Instead of dismissing ourselves or invalidating the emotions we are experiencing (also known as emotional bypassing), we can allow ourselves to grieve more fully by feeling our emotions and asking questions about what we feel, otherwise known as emotional processing. For example, instead of dismissing how we feel by thinking, “It could be worse!”, it is more helpful to our healing to ask questions such as “What is my sadness and anger telling me about what I love or what’s important to me?” In acknowledging our pain and asking ourselves questions about how we feel, we can grow in self-knowledge and self-understanding about the way in which God has created us. We can also engage in processing with a trusted friend, mentor, or mental health professional.
Allowing Physical Release
Grief, like other emotions and emotional processes, makes itself known in our bodies. Physical pain, muscle aches, clenched jaws, and a racing heartbeat can all be caused by grief, stress, and anxiety. It is important to process these emotions physically so that they do not remain stuck in our bodies. Breathwork, exercise, crying, and movement allows us to feel grief and allow it to process through our body. Journaling, since it requires movement of the hands, is also a helpful tool for engaging grief through our bodies.
Authenticity in Prayer
We are the beloved children of God; God looks upon us with love, care, and concern with whatever we bring to prayer. Talking to God honestly about our disappointment, sadness, or anger brings us closer in relationship with God. In prayer, God is not judging us for what we do or do not say. For this reason, we can be totally authentic with God in prayer. We might feel like we should have a different emotional response to our losses from what we are experiencing, but God’s love is unconditional and infinite: we don’t have to worry about appearing perfect before God.
Grieving the large and small losses of the last few months is not only important, it is human. How can we enter more deeply into our grief to find healing? What in our lives do we need to grieve?
This Easter season, I have been thinking a lot about my late brother Tim, who died in an accident seven years ago - at the age of 24 - while serving as an EMT in Indianapolis, IN. Tim’s death, along with the death of his IEMS partner Cody Medley, left all their friends and families at an inestimable loss.
While I never got to meet Cody personally, I have learned that he was an exceptionally driven and talented young person who also served as a fire cadet before becoming a paramedic. Tim’s story is not much different; he was an Eagle Scout and volunteer EMS before going professional and passing his paramedic certification shortly before he died.
In life, Tim achieved success in almost every field. As a teenager he won academic and musical scholarships and posted regular five-minute miles in outdoor and indoor track. He mastered Mandarin and spent an immersion summer in Shanghai. He participated in a service trip to Jamaica and volunteered back home as a “running buddy” alongside students with special needs in Central Park. These successes, paired with his later commitment to the medical profession, truly made him “A Man for Others” – the Jesuit motto of his alma mater, NYC’s Regis High School.
Only looking backwards have I come to appreciate how brilliant Tim was. Perhaps you have a similar person in your family – someone who is so smart that they are intimidating. Tim was fearless in challenging others (especially those in authority) when he thought they were wrong. I have thought of him throughout this entire pandemic. As a first responder, I know that he would be helping wherever help was needed. As the outspoken person he was, I know he would have choice words for those he felt were ignoring public safety protocols. And most of all, as a cuttingly funny person, I know he would help me laugh during this time.
Tim died three days into Lent, on February 16th, 2013. I have remembered him especially during every Lent and Easter since then. This past Lent was perhaps the most difficult yet. Many say that it takes seven years to heal from losing a loved one. The year 2020 marks seven years for all who loved Tim. To me, I felt healing – which also meant letting my guard down to feel fully the pangs of loss I couldn’t afford to feel in 2013.
The coronavirus situation, if nothing else, has clarified the relationship between life and death. We are all vulnerable humans. This can be a scary thought, but also a freeing one.
This can be a time to meditate on life as what it is – a short chance to grow, love, and serve others. We do not know how long the journey will last. I sometimes think that my brother attacked life the way he did because he might have sensed that he had less time than others. He used to wake me up after midnight, for instance, after I had already gone to bed, and say “Come on bro, get up, let’s make some memories.” At the time I thought he had a screw loose. Now I think he was prophetic.
Recently in the Gospel readings, we hear Jesus tell the disciples, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.”
These words are a balm to all of us who have experienced loss, or who fear loss during these challenging times. As I read this passage, I am touched by the care and concern Jesus shows for his followers. He is also being quite honest with them and reminding them that they will lose him. The promise of peace is made realer by the reality of loss. This is what I receive from today and feel to be true in my own life.
One year after Tim’s death, on Easter Sunday 2014, my family went to Mass in a church we had never been to before. The previous year had been difficult for everyone. Personally, I had not been taking care of myself mentally, physically, or spiritually. In the prior twelve months, I had not felt anything approaching peace. I was experiencing great fear and having awful panic attacks. That morning, sitting in the pews, waiting for Mass to begin, I suddenly noticed all sound around me fade out. I felt a sensation of all the breath leaving my body – and then my next breath was a slow, purposeful breath that was like drinking cool water in the desert. I was able to begin breathing in a deep and rhythmic way. Over the next few minutes, I felt as if warm light was streaming over me, from the head down. It was a feeling of complete release and relief. Ever since, I’ve been hoping to feel that peace again.
Like my brother, I doubted (and still doubt) aspects of my faith. Tim wrestled to understand people who believe that faith and the intellectual life are incompatible. Being the true original that he was, I think he found it difficult at times to imagine a place in Christianity where he fit in. Yet after his death, I learned that some of Tim’s recent writings and reflections expressed the faith of a mature man who trusted in a loving God. I reflect on his words often as I remember my “kid brother” - who responded to numerous life-or-death situations and treated severe injuries which I would be terrified to walk into. Like everything else, Tim’s faith journey happened at a rate and intensity that most of us will never know.
As Easter moves on and we navigate the new normal that is COVID-19, my spiritual suggestion (for what it’s worth) is this: In your prayers, dreams, and doings, try to let fear and hope co-exist. I will try to do the same. If we can hold those two seemingly irreconcilable opposites, we may find that peace can sprout like a flower right in between our hands.
The opening of today’s reading from the Gospel of John depicts Mary Magdalene on the cusp of an encounter with the Risen Christ. “But Mary stayed outside the tomb weeping. And as she wept, she bent over into the tomb and saw two angels in white.”
In this moment of bending down and looking into the tomb she thought was empty, Mary provides an everlasting model for those of us seeking the Risen Christ throughout Easter and throughout our lives. Where Jesus’ tomb had been a place of death, it is now a place of resurrection. Where Mary’s tears had symbolized her grief, they now contain her joy.
This amazing moment came on a morning when Mary was vulnerable and traumatized. I cannot imagine what Mary must have been feeling there, alone – but I can only guess that seeing Jesus alive again would have been the last thing on her mind.
When I feel vulnerable, my world feels very small. In grief and pain, it is difficult to “think outside the box” or to think about the “big picture.” In fact, it is difficult to think at all. Many of us are living now from this place of smallness in the light of the coronavirus pandemic. We are currently facing dangers that have fundamentally altered the patterns of our Church life and our society – along with many other woes that can cause us to despair.
The Good News is that none of the woes of the world can separate us from God’s love. As Jesus told the disciples, “I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you.” (John 16:22)
I hope that this Easter week brings you such joy.
And if you still have grief, I invite you to trust that it’s okay, and that God can work within that grief. We can take courage from the example of Mary Magdalene, whose own tears opened the portal between life and death. From Mary’s story and from my own story, I have faith that God can work directly within our sorrow – opening new possibilities when we had thought all the doors closed.
I believe this is where God is most fully present in our lives – in the spaces where we feel lost, abandoned, and confused. In this way, I am hopeful that this Easter season will help all of us to encounter Christ in truly new and unimagined ways.
For more Easter resources, please click here.
When you hear “Lent,” or “Stations of the Cross,” what comes to mind? Is this just an annual season before the Easter festivities, or a must-follow ritual the Church demands of you? Or, is this a period you can truly focus and reflect on the mystery of God’s love for mankind – and the mystery of one man’s sacrifice and passion for all (including those He was yet to meet, like you and I)?
Some years ago, during a discussion among friends, one person asked, “what’s the point of going through Lent and the Stations of the Cross all over again when Jesus did that already?” and the response was, “if we put ourselves through the Stations of the Cross meaningfully, we are able (even just for a few days) to put our feet in Christ’s sandals so that we would also learn to love (even to death) all mankind; regardless of how often we are hurt in the process.”
The Passion of Christ demonstrates how much we are loved and how far God will go to show love to us. Sometimes, I think Jesus may have wanted to change His mind while praying in Gethsemane, where he sought God in the midst of sorrow and distress. Sometimes, we also feel sorrow, anguish, and distress. If given the power, we would ‘run out’ of our lives. How often have we come to that point of not wanting to go any further? How often have we thought, “I’m not sure I can do this”? I know I have.
Jesus turned to God for comfort and reassurance. Who do you turn to during the tough times?
Focus on Spirituality:
When everyone Jesus knew had either ‘sold Him off,’ denied Him, or run away for their own safety, it must have felt as though He had been abandoned by those he had thought loved Him so dearly. Even today, there are people all around us who feel abandoned and do not know where or who to turn to.
Today, as we ask Jesus where He would like to celebrate Passover, His response is: “I would like to celebrate Passover in your heart.” Have you prepared your heart for the Passover feast? If we also ask Jesus, “who would you like to celebrate it with?” I am sure His response is: “the lonely, the broken, the anxious, the weary, the frightened, and the sick and with you.” As we prepare our own hearts for the Passover feast, let us extend Jesus’ invitation to those in need on His behalf.
LORD, thank You for choosing my heart to celebrate the Passover; teach me to prepare my heart so that You would have the best Passover feast. As I send out Your invitations, help me look out for the hearts that need You- help me look beyond the cover-up smiles; and as I give out these invitations of hugs, laughter, smiles, joy and comfort, may I remember to take my seat at the table to feast with You. Amen!
Journey with Jesus through the Stations of the Cross - may it not be out of a sense of obligation but because You know that Jesus needs a friend who will walk with Him through His rise and falls on this journey. Do not look too far, there may be someone closest to you who needs a friend or a listening ear for a short journey. As you take this journey, allow Jesus to prepare your heart not just for the Passover but for all His celebrations and may the way you speak and live give you away (like Peter’s speech betrayed him).
To learn more about faith-based service opportunities, please click here.
Benita Amoako is a St. Joseph Worker Program NY Alumnae.
Today we celebrate the feast of St. John Paul II, a saint of our times! He is remembered for many things, including his passion for the arts, outdoors, youth, and families. St. John Paul II also had a deep devotion to Mary, and in what I know of St. John Paul II’s life and loves, we can bring no greater joy in celebrating his sainthood than by honoring our blessed Mother.
St. John Paul II’s favorite prayer was the Rosary, and I too, have developed a fondness for praying it. I stumbled upon a recording a couple of years ago in my desire to pray it intentionally. As I would listen and pray along in my car every morning before work, I discovered a love for each mystery and the fruit they bear, as like Mary, I “pondered them in [my] heart” (Luke 2:19, 51). The mysteries of the Rosary invite us to contemplate the life of Christ through the memories of Mary. St. John Paul II says remembering these mysteries “were to be the ‘rosary’ which she recited uninterruptedly throughout her earthly life” (Rosarium Virginis Mariae, §11). In this remembering, the account of the Gospel from the eyes of Mary are timeless, “not only belong[ing] to ‘yesterday’; they are also a part of the ‘today’ of salvation” (John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, §13). In this, St. John Paul II reminds us that the Rosary is an invitation to participate in Christ’s divine life, and it is relevant across time to the faithful of all ages.
Recently my routine for praying the Rosary has changed as I am now on maternity leave and spend the day taking care of my newborn daughter. Instead of rushing to get my two-year-old son into the car and dropped off at daycare before work and enjoying my prayer time alone in the car, we have the opportunity to hop in the stroller and walk to daycare, spending time together saying hi to neighbors and marveling at the changing of seasons before he starts his school day. Despite the enjoyment both my son and I get from these walks, in the transition of summer at home with mommy to school, and the transition from being an only child to living the realities of being a big brother at only two years old, for quite a few weeks my son was not happy about leaving home for the day. Although my son loves school, he was hating drop off, and his anxiety (and let’s be honest, mine, too) crept in the closer we got to school each day.
One morning as I was trying to get him excited for the day, I asked him if he wanted to pray the Rosary with me, telling him it always brings me calm and comfort, and he said yes. I told him I would let my recording play, and I would tell him the stories of each mystery. Thus began a new routine for us each morning. As the Joyful Mysteries play, I tell him about how much Mary loved God that she said yes to being Jesus’ Mommy, and how we pray that we can love God like her and say yes to Him when he needs us to. When the Luminous Mysteries play, I tell him about Jesus’ first miracle, turning water into wine at the Wedding at Cana, and that through Mary, she will lead us to Jesus and help us see the miracles he’s performing in our own lives. In praying the Sorrowful Mysteries, I am very closely brought to tears as I think about explaining death to a toddler, and moved by Jesus’ sacrifice for us, telling my son that no sin stops Christ’s love for us. We pray to be good people and follow the will of God. And when we pray the Glorious Mysteries, I get to teach my son about the glories of the Holy Spirit and Heaven, praying for our ultimate happiness with Jesus, Mary, and all the saints. In praying these, I am in awe of how parenting is transforming my heart, teaching me to be like a little child, loving Jesus without abandon like my son does. By the time we’ve prayed our Rosary for the day, we’ve arrived at daycare. Filled with his spunky confidence and newfound graces, my son hops out of his stroller and says “let me give you a kiss for the road,” and sends me off on my way. Each day, he runs off to the playground to play with his friends, and I am amazed by the graces we’ve both received by praying the Rosary together.
In his great love for both the Rosary and the family, St. John Paul II called families to pray this prayer together, acknowledging how its graces unite the family:
Individual family members, in turning their eyes towards Jesus, also regain the ability to look one another in the eye, to communicate, to show solidarity, to forgive one another and to see their covenant of love renewed in the Spirit of God.
Many of the problems facing contemporary families, especially in economically developed societies, result from their increasing difficulty in communicating. Families seldom manage to come together, and the rare occasions when they do are often taken up with watching television. To return to the recitation of the family Rosary means filling daily life with very different images, images of the mystery of salvation: the image of the Redeemer, the image of his most Blessed Mother. The family that recites the Rosary together reproduces something of the atmosphere of the household of Nazareth: its members place Jesus at the centre, they share his joys and sorrows, they place their needs and their plans in his hands, they draw from him the hope and the strength to go on. (Rosarium Virginis Mariae, §41)
From daycare drop-offs to contemplating our family’s deepest sorrows and joys, we too as a family have found this hope and strength of the Rosary to be true and timeless.
On this Feast of St. John Paull II, I invite you to honor him and our Blessed Mother by taking the time to pray the Rosary, finding twenty minutes of your time to devote to contemplating the face of Jesus. St. John Paul said, “a prayer so easy and yet so rich truly deserves to be rediscovered by the Christian community… I look to all of you, brothers and sisters of every state of life, to you, Christian families, to you, the sick and elderly, and to you, young people: confidently take up the Rosary once again. Rediscover the Rosary in the light of Scripture, in harmony with the Liturgy, and in the context of your daily lives” (Rosarium Virginis Mariae, §43). Know of my unending prayers for you as you begin this rediscovery of the Rosary for yourself, as with Mary, you too ponder these mysteries in your heart and recognize their fruits in your life.
St. John Paul II, pray for us!
Our Lady of the Rosary, pray for us!
Editor's note: This blog was originally published in 2013. We are re-posting it in honor of the two upcoming Marian feast days on September 8 (the Nativity of Mary) and September 12 (the Most Holy Name of Mary). Blessed Mother, pray for us!
Both of my grandmothers had great devotion to the Blessed Mother. I remember going to their homes and seeing statues of Mary and other saints, prayer cards, and crystal and silver rosaries. I learned much from them and my mother about devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Back in 1901, on this day, the feast of the Most Holy Name of Mary, my grandmother, Millie Donio, was born. During my childhood, though, I did not know that it was a feast day, because with the reform of the liturgical calendar in 1969, the feast was removed. Restored by Blessed John Paul II in 2002 in the revised Roman Missal, it is now an optional memorial. Interestingly, there is only one other feast related to the name of a person, the Most Holy Name of Jesus, celebrated on January 3rd. This feast day was restored in 1996.
The name, Mary, could mean “sea of bitterness” or, possibly, “beloved”. Consider for a moment how many situations Mary found herself in that could have resulted in bitterness. When the unwed young Mary was told by the angel Gabriel that she was pregnant by the “power of holy Spirit,” she did not focus on her own situation, but made herself available to her cousin Elizabeth (Lk 1:39-40). When her son, Jesus, went off preaching suddenly at age 30, the scriptures show no evidence of her complaining about it. Instead, she says, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5). No bitterness there. When she is at the foot of the cross watching her son die before her eyes, powerless to do anything about it, she accepts being given over the care of the Beloved Disciple, he as her son, she as his mother (John 19:26-27). Sorrow, yes. Bitterness, no. A “sea of bitterness” around her, but she, being the perfect disciple, shows us the way to be. She shows us how to live as beloved by God.
My grandmothers showed me how to live as one beloved by God. They each had their various hardships in life – physical sufferings, emotional difficulties, financial challenges – but each held firm to her faith and it was faith in God that sustained them. They each moved outside of themselves and cared for others, even in the midst of their own struggles. I will never forget going with Grandmom Donio to quietly drop off bags of fruits and vegetables at the back doors of the homes of people she knew were in need of them, but were not able to ask others for help. No words exchanged, we were not even seen, just an action done for good because the other is beloved by God.
Being beloved by God does not mean there will be no suffering or challenge in life. Being beloved by God, called by our name in Baptism, which claimed us for Jesus Christ, we are not left alone to simply move through life. We have the ones we call by name, Mary who intercedes for us with the other person we call by name, Jesus, who is also the Son of God. We call also on the names of the other baptized in the community of faith, the Church. We call out with all of our needs as we live in what can seem at times like a “sea of bitterness.” But, we are not meant to be bitter in life, no matter what we experience. Pope Francis offers us encouragement to move out of ourselves toward others:
“Let us never yield to pessimism, to that bitterness that the devil offers us every day; let us not yield to pessimism or discouragement: let us be quite certain that the Holy Spirit bestows upon the Church, with his powerful breath, the courage to persevere and also to seek new methods of evangelization, so as to bring the Gospel to the uttermost ends of the earth (cf. Acts 1:8)” (Audience with the College of Cardinals, March 15, 2013).
What are we to do then? Not live in bitterness, but witness as ones beloved. We are to call others by name and assist them in being good disciples of Jesus Christ, following the pattern of life and asking the intercession of the one called Mary.
In the most beautiful chapter of the best work of one of the greatest Catholic theologians - in my opinion, anyway - Saint Augustine tells the story of his mother, Saint Monica.
Saint Monica was born to a good Christian family but she had little luck in marriage. She was married at a young age to a man named Patricius, and they had three children together. He was a pagan, he was angry, and he was unfaithful. But Monica was patient and merciful. Despite Patricius’s evil ways, she served him with devotion, mercy, and constant prayer. At the end of his life, only one year before he died, her daily prayer and kindness were rewarded and Patricius was baptized into the faith.
But Patricius’s conversion did not end Monica’s sorrow. Augustine was seventeen when Patricius died, and his conduct was worse than his father's. He was brilliant, but lazy. He drank excessively, stole, and lived promiscuously. The year his father died, Augustine fathered a son of his own out of wedlock. Despite Monica’s urging, Augustine refused to settle down and get married. Worse still, Augustine rejected his mother’s faith and joined the Manichean cult.
But Monica never ceased her kindness and prayers. She followed Augustine as his teaching lead him to Carthage, to Rome, and to Milan. In Milan, Monica met Saint Ambrose, then a bishop. In serving in his church, she came to know Ambrose well, and Ambrose came to understand her sorrow for her son. He comforted her, saying, “Surely the son of so many tears will not perish.”
Her prayers were eventually answered. A year before she died, Augustine was baptized. He went on to become one of greatest saints in history. As she lay dying, Monica told her son that her life’s work was complete. “One thing there was, for which I desired to linger a little while in this life, that I might see you a Catholic Christian before I died. God has granted this to me in more than abundance, for I see you his servant, with even earthly happiness held in contempt. What am I doing here?” (pg 223).
Saint Monica gives us a powerful example of the influence of intercessory prayer (CCC 2634-2636). Monica did not use words to persuade Augustine to convert. Instead she led by example, living with kindness and praying on his behalf. For thirty-two years she patiently prayed for his conversion, and God rewarded his faithful servant. We are called to do the same.
The Letter of James says, “Pray for one another, that you may be healed. The fervent prayer of a righteous person is very powerful” (James 5:16) and Jesus tells us, “Amen, amen, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you.” (John 16:23). We are all sinners and we all need God’s intercession. But we are not alone. God desires us to pray for our own forgiveness and for the forgiveness of others. That is why we pray “forgive us our trespasses” and not “forgive me my trespasses.”
People are difficult. We treat each other with anger, unfaithfulness, and unrepentance. But rather than meet those that harm us with our own shortcomings, let us instead follow Saint Monica’s example and live a life full of kindness and prayer. Pray for God’s help, pray for the forgiveness and conversion of others, and Saint Monica, pray for us.
St. Monica’s feast day is celebrated on Monday, August 27, 2018.
*The blog post below was co-authored by Nicholas and Alyce Shields, who have been married since June 2015. The italicized text was written by Alyce, while the rest was written by Nicholas.
Almost 11 years ago, Alyce and I walked into our first high school class together and the rest was history… just kidding. While I wish it was that easy, living out your vocation is never easy. Although we are each called to a vocation by virtue of our Baptism, discerning that vocation is no mean feat. It takes time, patience, and community. Pope Francis said in his message for the 53rd Day of Prayer for Vocations, “Vocations are born within the Church … Vocations grow within the Church … Vocations are sustained by the Church.” The Body of Christ provides a wonderful example for us of the diversity of our vocations, and our church community is beautiful place in which to discern. Discernment is a very personal journey, yet we can greatly benefit from looking to one another and to those who have made this journey before us for guidance. Not only can we look to our priests and religious, but to our parents and grandparents as well! Discernment is not restricted to the priesthood or religious life, but also includes the call to marriage or consecrated single life! Alyce and I did not enter marriage blindly; we discerned our calling, discussed it with our family, friends, priests, and with each other before we took the next step. Because we discerned our vocation together, we strengthened our faith and developed our relationship with each other while being centered on Christ.
What did that discernment look like? While it’s different for many, for us, it took waiting and time. In our four years of dating long-distance, God taught us patience and dependence on him. Nicholas and I learned of God’s faithfulness, that his love and promises are never outdone in generosity. In the many days of waiting, I found myself relying on the hope that if God calls something to be, He will make a way. Additionally, the greatest “I love you” that Nicholas and I would say for each other was this: “I’ll see you in the Eucharist.” This means that as members of the Body of Christ – which is the community of the Church that Nicholas previously mentioned – we are united through Jesus in his physical presence even though we were over a thousand miles apart. We learned that our identities reside in Christ and that our gaze must be fixed on him. This outlook, a relationship centered on Christ, does not just apply to dating and discernment, but also on marriage and family life. We have gotten engaged, survived long-distance, gotten married, are awaiting the birth of our first child, and we are still working to keep our lives centered on Christ.
Living our vocation means that day after day, we must see each other in the Eucharist. In both times of joy and sorrow, our marriage has been strengthened through shared prayer and reliance on Christ. When we slack on the effort of making Christ the priority, we find ourselves bitter and sluggish. When we cling to Christ, we are more in tune with each other and find that we really live out the goal of helping each other get to heaven. With Christ, we can serve each other with the truest of loves and find confidence in God’s promises continually being revealed to us. We are so blessed to be journeying towards God together and sharing his love with those we encounter.
None of this is easy, but it is necessary and worth it. For inspiration, Alyce and I often look to the Holy Family as a model of how we want our own marriage and family to be. Mary and Joseph had total trust in the Lord and put their lives in His hands. We strive to do this each and every day as we pray together, encourage each other, and serve one another. No matter where you are in your discernment, we encourage you to keep Christ at the center, to pray, and to trust in the Lord. Pope Saint John Paul II put it best, “Love Christ and love the Church! Love Christ as he loves you. Love the Church as Christ loves her. Do not forget that true love sets no conditions; it does not calculate or complain but simply loves.”
Alyce Shields is a teacher and Nicholas Shields is a Young Professional in Washington, D.C. They have been married since June 2015.
If you visit the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., you may recognize many of the titles of the Virgin Mary marvelously illustrated in nearly 50 chapels and oratories throughout what is the largest Catholic church in North America (and tenth largest church in the world!). To me, one depiction stands out from the rest, an image that causes many a visitor to gasp, stop in his or her tracks, and call to mind a particular event in salvation history. Whereas the National Shrine is filled with beautiful images of the Blessed Mother in splendor furnished by various religious orders or benefactors of a national or ethnic devotion to Mary, the Slovakian chapel’s central work of art is not the characteristic mosaic or even a portrait, but rather a statue of the Sorrowful Mother holding in her arms the lifeless body of Jesus.
The image of the Pietà described above is one of the three common artistic representations of a sorrowful Virgin Mary, the other two being Mater Dolorosa (“Mother of Sorrows,” portrayed with seven daggers piercing her heart, often bleeding) and the 13th century hymn, Stabat Mater (which comes from the first line of the hymn “Stabat Mater Dolorosa,” meaning “the sorrowful mother stood”). The feast of Our Lady of Sorrows is celebrated on September 15th, while a feast of Friday of Sorrows is observed in some Catholic countries on the Friday before Palm Sunday. It’s an opportunity to remember that the Blessed Mother’s life was not without sadness or pain in light of her Immaculate Conception. The popular devotion to Mary’s Seven Sorrows recalls seven such instances in her life (likewise the Pietà in the Shrine’s chapel is flanked by the other sorrows on the wall):
While we may tend to think of Mary’s life as being purely one of perfect serenity and union with God, it is important to remember that she was human— she had emotions, doubts, and pains like the rest of us! In a world where violence and suffering are all too frequent headlines in the news, how much more closely can we relate to and depend upon the Mother of God who was no stranger to anguish and distress? However more quickly can we fly in prayer to our Mother’s tender embrace for comfort and peace when we are faced with great tribulation and uncertainty!
Below is a hymn often used for the Stations of the Cross that is composed with the verses from the Stabat Mater. When sung reverently, this hymn solemnly and deeply touches the hearts of the faithful and helps to place each at the foot of Calvary in vigil with the Blessed Mother:
Is there one who would not weep,
whelmed in miseries so deep,
Christ’s dear Mother to behold?
In the end, however, like Mary, we must not dwell solely on the pains of our lives, but look ahead with hope and faith in God (as sculptor Ernest Morenon uniquely depicted in the Shrine chapel with Mary looking towards heaven). For Mary, as well as for each of us, Christ did gloriously resurrect on the third day. How much more confidently, then, can we proceed with our lives, even after great turmoil, as we pray:
While my body here decays,
may my soul Thy goodness praise,
Safe in Paradise with Thee.
What do you do when you are feeling sad, scared, or anxious? Where do you turn for a source of comfort?
The Blessed Mother knows all about sorrow. She is always ready to comfort any one of her children who come to her in prayer. But, have you ever thought about offering comfort to her?
The Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows is today, September 15, 2015. Perhaps you might be able to find a little bit of time to spend with her. Much less familiar than the Rosary is the Chaplet of the Seven Sorrows. The chaplet is made up of seven groups of seven beads. Each group is separated by a single bead. In praying the chaplet, you would meditate on each of the seven sorrows while reciting one Our Father and seven Hail Mary’s. If you would like to pray the chaplet, this webpage can be of help.
The Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary:
The Prophecy of Simeon
The Flight into Egypt
The Child Jesus Lost in the Temple
Mary Meets Jesus Carrying His Cross
Mary at the Foot of the Cross
Mary Receives the Body of Jesus
Mary Witnesses the Burial of Jesus
The seven sorrows span from the earliest days of Jesus’ life to His final hours. All of the Blessed Mother’s sorrows tie back to her Son. For a mother, very few things compare to watching the child she loves hurting. Although the Blessed Mother certainly put her entire trust in God, she still would have known terror when the Holy Family fled to Egypt to escape the threat of King Herod to save their precious newborn Son. Not only was the Holy Family far from home, but they had no idea when it might be safe to return to Nazareth. Any parent can tell you how scary it is when their child is lost. No words would be adequate to describe how scared Mary must have felt as she and Saint Joseph spent three full days searching for Jesus before finding Him teaching the elders in the temple.
The next time you ask the Blessed Mother for her intercession before God, remember that she understands sorrow and anxiety. During her own life, the Blessed Mother understood suffering; just like all of us today understand the experience of suffering in our own lives. She is always there, more than happy to pray for us. Perhaps you might return the favor, and find a bit of time to spend with her.
Our Lady of Sorrows, pray for us!
Jennifer Beckmann is an Administrative Secretary for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
I remember the first time I felt true repentance. It was not because I got caught making a bad decision; not because I simply felt guilty; not because I thought about what others might think of me—all of which might be gateways to repentance, but not sufficient in and of themselves. I remember the first time I felt true repentance out of love of Christ and sorrow for the rejection of His love through my sin.
I was in a small chapel in the hills of Los Gatos on a five-day Ignatian Silent Retreat. The assignment on this particular afternoon was to spend time praying over and reflecting on your past sin, on how you had rejected God’s love and, in so doing, on how you had contributed to His pain on the Cross. It was a heavy day.
I took a deep breath in the chapel and started remembering and reflecting on past sinful decisions. Some, I knew blatantly. Others seemed inspired by the Holy Spirit. I had not even realized how past decisions might have affected other people more than myself, and I was illuminated in such a way that I saw how my sins spread out like a web contaminating the lives of others. Tears flowed unguarded from my eyes. How could I have done such things? I placed myself within the crucifixion narrative and saw that I had joined the Roman soldiers with their whips, their taunts, their hammers. I had pierced my Lord.
I felt terrible—like the scum on the bottom of a lake in the darkness.
And then I felt Him. I felt His gaze from the tabernacle. He beckoned me, inviting my eyes to meet His own.
“I can’t look back at you, Lord,” my heart said. “I’m too broken, too ashamed, too unworthy.” I kept looking down at my lap, afraid to meet His gaze. But the feeling of being looked at persisted, gently. After a few moments, I could no longer bear it. Anything, even Christ’s condemnation, would be better than avoiding Him.
I looked up. And I met Love.
I felt Christ’s presence in the tabernacle and saw Him looking at me as a bridegroom looks at his bride on their wedding day: joy, peace and love filling his face, eyes brimming with pride and tears and awe. The gaze with which Christ looked at me turned my blemishes into radiance. I became a spotless bride because of the overflow of His love. I knew, in the midst of my sin and ugliness, perhaps the ugliest I had ever felt, that I was inherently and infinitely loved, that my dignity was in Him. And so the tears flowed evermore—tears of humility, peace and joy. I had been given yet another chance, which I used to further receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
I assume the joy and freedom I felt after this experience and after going to Confession is how Mary Magdalene felt when she met the Christ and was freed from seven demons. We know with certainty that Mary Magdalene had been cured of seven demons, that she was a follower of Christ and that she was present at the crucifixion. We also know Mary Magdalene, like all of us, was a sinner. When Christ met her, she might have given up. She had been plagued by seven demons and thought that perhaps she would never be free. Christ offers her another alternative: freedom. As a result of our encounter with Christ's forgiveness--both by encountering His love and by being reconciled to Him--we can live in the joy of the Resurrection.
For this reason, it is fitting that Mary Magdalene is cited as the first witness of the Resurrection. St. Augustine called her the Apostle to the Apostles. We find Mary Magdalene in John's Gospel weeping by the open tomb of Jesus three days after His burial, for she thinks His body has been stolen. When Christ meets her, she mistakes him for the gardener. “Mary!” Jesus exclaims to his forlorn disciple, calling her by name (John 20:16). “Kate!” He exclaimed to me in the chapel. He meets us in our despair, our sorrow. Only then can we join Mary Magdalene in looking at Christ, recognizing Him and meeting His gaze. I imagine she grasped her bridegroom’s feet, kissing them in thanksgiving and bowing before Him. We cannot stay there in gratitude. Christ called me to go out from the chapel and to go out after receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation, as he did Mary Magdalene:
“Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers” (John 20:17).
The repentant sinner becomes the Apostle to the Apostles. This can only be so after we have encountered the love of God. Today, I invite you to an examination of your own sin, of any time you have rejected God’s love. Do so in a sacred place: a chapel, a Church, a reverent place in your house. I invite you to this in order to surrender these moments over to Christ and to allow Him to transform them by His love. Allow Him today to gaze at His beautiful creation, which has become broken or tarnished by the Fall and by sin, and allow Him to meet you where you are at, to love you there. Only by knowing how infinitely you are loved will you be able to “go to [His] brothers,” to go out to all the world in love—radiant, joyful and renewed.
Kate Flannery is the Social Media Coordinator for the Catholic Apostolate Center
We are about two weeks into our Lenten sojourn, and I’m not sure about your experience so far, but I know that it has already been a challenge for me. And that’s good! I wanted this Lent to more closely unite me to the Cross of Christ, not just for these forty days, but beyond this season, and God is answering this prayer in ways that I could never expect. In fact, he is delivering me from my own crosses so that I may know joy through this suffering.
So far, I’ve been able to take away two important lessons from my Lenten journey so far:
Life is hard. Our days are filled with many demands, and sometimes we fail to meet them. People will disappoint us. We may hurt others by our words or actions. We find ourselves exasperated, or at times feeling hopeless. But the one who hopes in the Lord knows that all of these trials of being human bring us to the Cross and teach us sacrificial love. This weekend at mass I was told, “Lent is a school of charity. Life is a school of charity” (Msgr. Andrew Wadsworth). As we navigate these crosses, God is literally stretching our hearts to be open to love – the love of the Cross – so that when we reach heaven, our hearts are like Christ’s sacred heart. And if he stretches our hearts through pain and sorrow, imagine how much God stretches our hearts through hope and joy! Through every trial and every gift we are being molded to become more Christ-like, capable of infinite love. If we could truly fathom this infinite love that God is preparing us for, we would live life on our knees in awe of the Cross. Truly we can say that life is a school of love, a school of charity.
The readings today teach us how we can plant our roots to let the Lord more fully direct our lives. We are consistently given the image of a tree whose roots are planted near running water. This tree’s leaves never fade, and in even drought, it still bears fruit. For me, this tree represents my cross, whose confidence must rely solely in the Lord. God can only keep my leaves evergreen if I live off of his waters, God will perform miracles in my life if I let him. Truly letting go of my pride and independence is so hard, yet extremely humbling. It truly takes confidence and prayer. In this school of charity, I’ve learned that even the simplest of prayers can help me submit my cross to God each day: “Multiply my time, Lord,” or “Let me see you where you need me to.” When I say these prayers and trust God to fulfill them, he does. He’s stretching my heart to know his love. He carries my crosses for me. Truly, I am a mere student in this school of charity.
As you pray today over your takeaways from Lent so far, I pray that you come to find peace in how the Lord is trying to carry your cross through His school of charity, and that you call upon the grace to let him do so. I pray that you reflect on where your tree is planted and that you want to live by God’s living streams. Ultimately, I pray that you know how loved you are. You are so loved that God is stretching your heart so that you may become more like him. He wants you to know infinite love, who is our Lord Jesus himself.
“I pray that you, being rooted and firmly established in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the length and width, height and depth of God’s love.” – Ephesians 3:17-18
Alyce Anderson is a teacher in Washington, D.C.
Today, the largest pro-life movement in the world will occur as thousands march the National Mall in Washington, DC, peacefully and passionately for the sake and sanctity of human life. Every year, the March for Life occurs on the anniversary of the historic Roe v Wade decision that made abortion legal in all 50 states. Despite the sorrow that fills the memory of this day, we have been called, as a community of life, to stand with zeal (word choice) for everyone’s right to life, not just this day, but every day of our lives.
I have never participated in the March for Life before, but I am very excited to finally take part in some of the activities that are occurring this week in our nation’s capital. From hosting eager pilgrims coming from Texas to march, to pro-life talks and dinners, and the National Prayer Vigil for Life, it has been an inspiring week so far. The pro-life community is strong and vibrant and it is a joy to be a part of that spirit. However, as I’ve been reflecting on the meaning and beauty of this week, I am realizing the vital call that is bestowed upon us to witness the beauty of life every day of our lives. During this week and beyond, we must take the time to see the value in every life and how we can share that with others.
I want the world to know that the beauty of life is all around us: the young, the old, the rich, the poor, and those in-between. It is in those risking their own life for the sake of others. The beauty of life is all around the world in different races, cultures, and experiences. The beauty of life is in the day to day interactions of our community, at home, work, and school. The beauty of life is in experiencing nature. The beauty of life is in sharing our own lives with others. Most vividly, as Catholics we know that the beauty of life exists in the Church, as Jesus Christ who teaches us how to love perfectly: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). To love perfectly is truly selfless. Those committed to a culture of life live as selfless witnesses, caring for the sanctity of each human soul through love. In our culture where instant pleasure and satisfaction are the façade for human happiness, we must teach others that there is authentic joy in protecting and standing for those who may not have a voice of their own.
So many have come before us and instructed us in Christ's example, in the way of life. Blessed Mother Teresa, who devoted herself to the Cross by serving Christ in the slums of India said, “Any country that accepts abortion is the poorest of the poor” and that, “Human rights are not a privilege conferred by government. They are every human being’s entitlement by virtue of his humanity. "Not only as Americans, but as faithful citizens of the kingdom of God, we are called to protect the preciousness of every life created by God.
These thoughts are my prayers, especially today, as we reflect on the Right to Life, particularly that America and our world will come to embrace a culture of life for all peoples, and I hope that you will live these prayers with me wherever you are marching. Whether you are in our nation’s capital today, at home, or at a march in spirit, know that your witness matters and is essential to stamping out a culture of death and living a culture of life. In order to bring life to the world, we must live in love. Let us ask God to bless this week that He may touch the hearts of many who need to hear his words of love and mercy, and that together we can increase the culture of life.
Alyce Anderson is a teacher in Washington D.C.