Friday, October 11, 2019

We're b-a-ck!

Well, sort of. Still a bit jet lagged, to tell the truth. The plane got in Tuesday night, with six Daughters of St Paul on board: we picked up an extra sister while in Rome. Sister Andrea, from the Czech Republic, will be in the US for a good part of the year working on her English skills and taking part in the Media Literacy course (put on by our Pauline Center for Media Studies). But one of the six will be returning to Rome sooner than anticipated.

Our provincial superior, Sister Donna Giaimo (third from left in photo), was elected to our congregation's general government
as a councilor to the new Superior General, Sister Anna Caiazza. So Sr Donna (a former member of the Daughters of St Paul Choir) will be moving to Rome at the end of November to serve a six year term, along with two re-elected councilors and three other newly elected councilors (from Korea, Italy and Kenya--the first African sister in our general government). For us (and, I'm sure, for our sisters in Korea, Italy and Kenya) this is case in which the greater good of the worldwide congregation is asking us to sacrifice an "Isaac" whose capable service we have really appreciated and hoped to benefit from a bit more ... directly. It is a real test of faith!

Our new Superior General, Sr Anna Caiazza, introducing me to the Holy Father.
In order to strengthen our faith in the face of that sacrifice in accord with the mandate given to the successor of Peter to "strengthen the brethren," we were given a special private meeting with Pope Francis the day before our General Chapter ended. I had been doubtful that non-delegates would be able to participate in this audience, but we were included, and even our sisters who work in a nearby Vatican office were allowed to sit in for the Papal address and one-on-one handshake with the Holy Father. His talk was practically a confirmation of everything that had been discussed during the long Chapter, and when he reached the point of saying "We don't have time to lose," he looked up, raised his hand in that characteristic teaching gesture of his, pointing to the sky and repeated: "There's no time to lose." You can read his whole talk here; in fact, I recommend it!
Outdoor art in Albano. The bucket says, "Laudato Si"; the tag is #exemplumomnibus
Speaking of Pope Francis, in late September he visited the nearby town of Albano (location of our hospital), where the local bishop commissioned an outdoor art piece (unveiled the day of the papal visit). The following Monday I had an errand to run in town: a perfect excuse to see the painting for myself! It is located right across from the Cathedral entrance, on the outside wall of a building. There was a big truck in the parking lot when I got there, so I took a few pictures and then went to visit the Cathedral. When I came out, the driver had pulled the truck several feet forward, giving me an unobstructed view of the painting, which really is charming. I got a very strong sense of how intensely Europeans feel the environmental issue; by addressing it, Pope Francis is establishing a sense of common ground with people who may not share our appreciation of creation as coming from a loving and provident Creator. I came to understand that this gives him the kind of credibility that grounds his proposal for a "human ecology": If people do not feel that Catholics respect the environment, our calls to respect human life seem hypocritical to them.

Back to the Chapter and elections: right before the elections were to begin, the translators had been sent away from the retreat house to leave the electors as free as possible. That gave us extra and unexpected freedom, too: free time in Rome! (Granted, I got called back the very next morning for one more day's service, but I still had two free days in Rome I hadn't been counting on at all.) This was my chance to see things I had never seen before, and to have new experiences in the Eternal City. For the first time ever (it took a bit of work to find it, too!), I visited the ancient church of St Lawrence in Lucina (that is, on the grounds of Lady Lucina's property), where the gridiron on which the famous deacon was martyred is preserved in a glass urn under an altar. The relics of Pope St Alexander are in a glass urn under another altar, and there is a fabulously carved 13th century Easter candle holder in the sanctuary. One thing we did not see was the papal throne from the 12th century; except for a few days each year it is kept in a hidden chamber behind the altar.

The standing figure on the far left in San Marco's half-dome
is Pope Gregory IV, Pope from 827-844. The square halo
he was alive when this mosaic was made.
I made it back to the Gesù to light a candle at the tomb of St Ignatius (whose altar was being covered in scaffolding as we arrived). After that, since we were near Piazza Venezia, we went around the corner to see if perhaps the ancient Basilica of San Marco was still open. This was question, because by then it was noon, and I remembered from my earlier visits to Rome that most of the churches were locked between noon and 4 p.m. daily, leaving only tourist sites and the major Basilicas open for visits. Surprisingly, the "paradise" (the gated vestibule) of San Marco was unlocked, so in we went, going down several steps to the marble-floored area where catechumens were once relegated. Then we went down several more steps (with each step going down a few centuries further back in time) until we entered the Basilica itself. As we opened the doors, the sound system began playing Bruckner's incredible "Locus Iste" (listen below). We had all the time in the world to wander up the darkened aisle and put a euro in the box to light up mosaics that date to the early 800's.

Another church that has learned the pastoral value of staying open all day is the ancient church of St Marcello, one of Rome's original parishes--and so exceptional that it even had a baptistry: one which Sr Julia and I were privileged to see in a private visit below the streets of modern Rome. Our guide explained that the baptistry predated not only the church, but Christ: it was originally an ordinary Roman bath, connected to the famous water system that fed the Trevi fountain and other Roman water sources with exceptionally pure water from 15 miles away. We climbed back up, and more than halfway to street level we saw the marble facade of the ancient church.

We also made it to the grandiose "Chiesa Nuova" (New Church) built by St Philip Neri. (I prayed at his tomb--see left--for my great niece and nephew who attend St Philip Neri school.) Of course we also got gelato at every opportunity! The Church of St Ignatius (near the Pantheon) was also newly accessible during lunch hours. We visited twice. I lit a candle there for my brother-in-law Robert and nephew, Chase Robert, at the tomb of their patron saint, Robert Bellarmine (the saint's body, in his cardinal's robe's, is in a glass urn; photo on the right). Nearby, I discovered the hitherto unknown-to-me chapel of St Francis Xavier, now used only on Sundays for Mass in English. And just up the street (alley?) is a restaurant (Il Falchetto) where, on Sunday, eight of us met for a solemn high pranzo worthy to be remembered. (Sister Margaret Joseph brings all her visitors here and says she has never seen anyone disappointed.)

Following that pranzo, Sister Margaret took us on a private tour of the excavations below the Church of Santa Maria in Via Lata, where an ancient tradition says St Luke once lived (and with him, of course, St Paul during his Roman imprisonment). That it was the site of Roman shops and dwellings is clear from the archaeological evidence. It was also the site of at least two different Byzantine monastic communities in two different eras. Most of the frescoed icons had to be removed to a museum for restoration and safe-keeping, since once the area was excavated they began to deteriorate rapidly. (In fact, there is a well at that deep level from which you can still draw water). Still, there are remnants of icons, presumably past the point of restoration, which gazed upon us from the damp walls. (The picture here was enhanced so you could see a bit more of the facial detail than is immediately evident.)

That left us one more day--a rainy day, as it turned out. I made plans with one of the American delegates to spend the afternoon visiting the Basilica of St Paul-outside-the-walls. Providentially for the Daughters of St Paul, a relatively new bus line that goes all the way St Paul's burial site now has its "capolinea" (end station) right by our Generalate. We managed to time things perfectly so that we arrived just as the bus was ready to depart. I even practiced live-streaming via Twitter as we lit up the Basilica's apse mosaics, and then signed off to pray at the Apostle's tomb, leaving a small donation so that "Nunblogger's" readers could be remembered in a Mass by the Benedictine monks whose abbot (Ildefonse Schuster, now Blessed) had welcomed Blessed Timothy Giaccardo and the first Pauline community in 1926. On the way home, we got off the bus a few stops early so we could get a last, "Arrividerci, Roma" gelato at the local gelateria.

And then it was time to pack, adding in as many of the little gifts we had received from the chapter
I'm ready for my Golden Jubilee
(or my funeral, or both).
delegates as possible. (I especially appreciated the tote bags, pens, and the 1 TB drive with all the talks, slide programs and photos that had been shared during the month!) With the weight limits on international flights down to 23 kg, that meant I had to leave behind not only some of the gifts I had received, but also the jar of chestnut spread I had bought on my first day in Rome as a treat to bring back...small as it was, it was heavy enough to make a difference. (I didn't even think about it until later, but the real culprit was my holy card supply: I had stocked up on my favorite icon of Jesus!)

And so here we are: overcoming jet lag one day at a time. Ready to return to "ordinary time" in the service of the Lord and his Word.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Italy Update

We've really settled into the General Chapter lifestyle after two weeks. (I even started translating in my sleep shortly after the work began.) On my rosary walk (when the meeting schedule allows enough time for a walk!) I am really enjoying the wild flowers, especially the cyclamen, which are popping up everywhere now.

One of the things we were alerted to early on was that we should not walk the grounds after dark (or before sunrise) (or, for that matter, around 10 a.m., as one sister found out by surprise). There are herds of wild boars on the property, which is surrounded by woods. Just before dawn they come out to shovel the lawn with their tusks, in search of grubs and other delicacies. I keep trying to set up a web-cam to catch them in the act, since one of their favorite patches of lawn is within sight of my room (it's just that it' dark!). The brother who takes care of the grounds sighed that between the wild boars and the moles it is impossible to keep the gardens in some kind of order, but he keeps trying! And just today we had wild boar for lunch!!!

Sr Julia and I are trying to get some of the music for the psalm-tones that are used for Evening Prayer; that will really add to our community repertoire back home! Each day, the liturgy readings and music, and the assembly's prayers, are led by the sisters from a different part of the world. (Too bad I didn't have my phone with me when the African sisters sang at Mass the other day! It was amazing!) We from the US were assigned two days: the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross and the upcoming feast of St Francis (which coincides with the day of our scheduled private audience with Pope Francis).

Yesterday's presenter explained that the odd name for this meeting (a "Chapter") comes from the custom in the early monasteries of gathering for community meetings that would typically start by reading aloud a chapter from the Rule (or a chapter, once there were "chapters," from the Gospel). Eventually, the meeting room was just called the "chapter room" and the gathering itself a "chapter." That has lasted a thousand years, and here I am today, serving the "capitular" sisters in a General Chapter.

The talks that we are translating have been very rich. Yesterday's was especially enlightening for today's feast of St Matthew. It gave me a whole new insight into God's way of working with our darkness. The speaker told the story of a religious order priest who had, without any authorization, just taken off on a personal adventure in Eastern Europe. I suppose he was trying to find himself, getting on a train without a particular destination without even having made plans for accommodations. When he got off at a remote location and inquired about a place to stay, he was advised that there was a group of religious people that would probably take him in. It turned out to be a kind of inchoate religious community who had not had the Mass in years. The first thing they begged him for was to celebrate the Eucharist. And with that, the rebellious, runaway priest found himself calling his Father General, confessing his whereabouts, and asking for authorization to establish their congregation in an outpost that none of their long-range plans had ever foreseen. From renegate, he became a missionary founder. In his very act running from his community and whatever responsibilities or relationships he had there, God met him face-on and gave him a new degree of commitment to his congregation and a new level of trust! No one in that man's order would have entrusted him with the establishment of a far-off mission, but God did. That is what the Feast of St Matthew is about.

As I prayed over today's Gospel, the words of Psalm 139 came to mind: "Even darkness is not dark to You." That is why I need to remind myself not to focus on the dark place where a person might be when I meet them (or have to deal with them!). God can work in the dark. Even in the darkness he finds in me.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Smiling in despair

For some time now I have been an avid follower of Humans of New York, an online introduction to people around the world, through the photojournalism of Brandon Stanton. Entries (you can find them on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram) usually consist of a photo and a paragraph or two in the subject’s own words about themselves or their life. A few of the stories encompass three or even four episodes. It has been amazing, sometimes exalting, other times gripping, even distressing. (Stanton created a Patreon account so that people can send regular donations that allow HONY at times to provide desperately needed material or educational goods.) Most of the time it is heart-warming. 
Today was more heart-warning.
HONY has been in Amsterdam lately, and this week we “met” an older gentleman who seems to find life basically meaningless. 

As you can see from the write-up, he didn’t seem to mention any relationships at all, unless you count the chairs he dropped off for refinishing. He sees his life in decline, and, living as he does in a society that legalized euthanasia twenty years ago, sees a solution for the meaninglessness of existence in giving everyone a kill pill to take at age 60 or so. (Excuse me!!!!)
What an empty existence his comments reflect. I don't think I've ever used the phrase "existential despair" in this blog (correct me if I'm wrong), but here it is, with a smiling face and a cup of coffee.
But it’s not life that is meaningless: it is this lifestyle. He still seems to have health, but nothing worthwhile to do with it (he's right that the chairs don't count). He seems to be without any reference point outside of himself. And that is meaningless. 
My first reaction to this post was precisely the thought that he must not have anyone to love, or anyone who loves him, because if you love, you want to live for the beloved, right? To do things that make them smile, or at least give them what comfort is find your joy in their joy at being loved. To live for and with them, simply because to love is a good in itself.
Blessed James Alberione used to say, “Preaching the Gospel is an immense act of charity.” It  reveals even to people who may find themselves unloved in human society that they are known and infinitely loved. It opens the horizons of this world, a world that may not offer everyone the feeling of being loved or needed, the truth that love is the origin, goal and meaning of life. And it constantly challenges the preacher to make sure that he or she is actually representing the love of God in a concrete way and not only in empty words.
If there really is no one in all of Amsterdam who knows and loves this person, it would still do him much good to “go, sell what you have, and give” the rest of his life to using his expertise (whatever it may be) in a part of the world where his skills and knowledge are needed and appreciated; where he could again feel himself to be a contributor to society instead of just a retired, bored gadfly. He could die feeling that he was a person again, instead of a hunk of vegetative matter waiting to nourish the soil. Because the meaning of life is love. And the fundamental quality of love is the “freedom of the gift” of self.
I spent a good part of my prayer time holding this man up to Jesus, along with the many commenters who agreed with his assessment of life. There's a plea in there for the new evangelization, but it has to be really new: so alive, such a bearer of life that it cannot be ignored but must be dealt with (even if that means nailing it to the nearest cross). Because in one way, the man is right, as the youthful Jacques and Raissa Maritain intuited: a meaningless life is not worth living. They began to discover the meaning of life through a novel by Leon Bloy. Now, 100 years later, what might be some ways to help awaken dulled hearts to the meaningfulness of existence?

Monday, September 09, 2019

Bella Italia!

Pardon me a moment while I pick up my jaw from the floor, where it keeps falling...

Detail from the top of the stairs at San Marco Friary.
We’ve been in Italy just over a (very full week), having spent the first three days in Florence. The three of us walked everywhere, and no matter where we went, as soon as a door opened, so did my mouth, “Ohhhh!” Many of the most significant sites in Florence, even though they are churches (heck, even the Cathedral), require tickets, but religious sisters generally get in free (and even the tickets are works of art). The Cathedral ticket is valid for 72 hours, which is a good thing, because it covers the Cathedral museum, the Cathedral itself, the crypt, the bell tower and the Baptistry. We only managed to see the Baptistery and the bell tower, though we did go to Sunday Mass in the Cathedral, so we saw that much. The Cathedral museum is one of the best-curated museums anywhere. I missed most of it and I was still blown away. So there is enough left for another trip, should God provide that opportunity! 

Florence was on my must-see list because of Fra Angelico. I had been on several day trips to this magnificent city (including my first visit when I was still a college student only considering religious life), but I had never seen the Dominican friary where the saintly artist lived (and where he painted each brother’s little cell). With almost three days there, I finally had my chance. (Unfortunately for me, the friary-turned-museum is closed on the first Sunday of every month, and September 1 was our only full day in town!) We visited the monastery Church of San Marco on Sunday and saw some of its jaw-dropping splendors (like the ancient mosaic of the Blessed Virgin Mary as a Byzantine Empress: a mosaic that had been in the Constantinian Basilica of St Peter’s in the Vatican circa 705 AD, and when that was being torn down to make way for the new Vatican Basilica was cut in half and transported to Florence by a really smart Florentine cardinal).

We learned that Florence with its famous leather industry is the (only) place in Italy where you want to get a steak. And another culinary specialty: lampredotto. 
Lorenzo, the lampredotto vendor.
Note his name! It's a popular one in Florence!
We saw food stands and mom-and-pop restaurants boasting the availability of this unknown foodstuff (which we assumed to be eels or something lamprey-like). Finally we had to break down and ask what it was. This we did in the old produce market, now a combination marketplace (downstairs) and upscalish food court (upstairs). Lorenzo (he with the smiling face) ran a stand that featured something you can get nowhere else but in Florence: a cow stomach sandwich. Two of us were willing to give it a try (at least to split one). With artichokes. The portion of cow stomach (looked like tripe, but not tripe) was pulled from a pot of broth and chopped up; then the artichokes were chopped. These were piled onto a roll, topped with a thin parsley pesto and cut in half for us. Lorenzo was so pleased that we were trying the local specialty he gave us a discount. The flavor was very mild; so mild that it was really like eating an artichoke sandwich to which the meat gave only a bit more substance than the chopped vegetable. Don’t be afraid to try it. (Tell Lorenzo the Sisters sent you.)

Every night in Florence and for our two days in Rome my phone congratulated me: You have taken 15,000 steps today! You are taking more steps than usual! Keep it up! (Not going to happen…)

Sunset view from my room.
Right now we are currently immersed in a retreat experience—appropriately enough, at a retreat house. In fact, this is Pope Francis’ favorite retreat house: The Casa Divin Maestro, established by none other than Blessed James Alberione as a retreat house for the Pauline Family back in the 1950’s when he was at the height of what some members called his “brick fever.” (Always thinking ahead, he was buying properties right and left; this property is just a couple of miles away from the land he bought as a clinic where not only Paulines but any priests, brothers and sisters could be treated while offering their sufferings as a form of prayer that the media would be rightly used.)

Close quarters in the translators' booth.
At any rate, Sister Julia and I won the room lottery. Or maybe they just gave us the best views in the place because we were destined to be in the translation booth all day, every day. But our teeny, tiny bedrooms overlook Lake Albano, and as the sun begins to set, it lights up the Tyrrhenian Sea—highlighting Italy’s west coast. Since we are on the edge of a mountain (a volcano, which I sincerely hope is extinct), there is generally a cool breeze all day, so there is no AC (no screens, either). 

The first part of this month long meeting we are here to translate consists of a retreat with two hour-long conferences daily. (They are outstanding!!!) The “meetings” will begin on the 12th. That's when our translation work will really get intense. Aside from high-level input from Mother General and reports from the treasurer, there will be talks from experts in various fields. Then every day, our sister-delegates from around the world will present short (10-15 minute) reports on the Pauline mission and the needs of the people of their area. This can be especially challenging for the sisters who represent communities that serve more than one country! For example, our East Asia delegate represents communities in four very different counties, with more than four languages; similarly for the sister who represents Central Europe, where she must communicate the situation of Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic. These reports will help the assembly get a handle on the needs around the world so that the members will be better able to discern the direction the Lord wants us to take for the next six years (and the people he wants at the helm of the congregation for that timeframe, too).

The Chapter Hall, as seen from the translators' booths.
Overall, this is a young assembly. 27 of the 60 members have never attended a General Chapter before. (One of those 27 is also the eldest elected delegate!) I believe that this is also the first General Chapter in which all our African communities are represented by African sisters. At the last Chapter (I was a delegate) there were still missionary sisters representing East Africa and South Africa. And just Saturday night, as if truly passing the torch, one of our great missionaries to Africa died in our nearby hospital (the one founded as a clinic by Blessed James and Mother Thecla back in the 50’s). I don’t believe I have ever done this, but as soon as the English translation comes in, I am going to post her death notice so you can read about this apostolic woman who joined the Daughters of St Paul when she was just eleven years old, established our community in Angola and, before that, in Mozambique (she was kicked out of the country twice during times of political upheaval), and lived long enough to see the Pope visit her beloved adopted land. (One of them: she also served in South Africa, Kenya, and Nigeria.) She was a writer, teacher, novice director, publisher, cheerleader for the evangelization of Africa. And when it was not possible, because of political tensions, to carry out the media mission of the Daughters of St Paul, she found a way to stay with the people of her adopted land and share the Word of God with them in any way that was available, including parish work, until the way was clear to take up the publishing apostolate and welcome Pauline vocations once more.

Sister Maria had been in Italy getting some medical attention, and had accepted with a spirit of sacrifice and real oblation a new assignment that did not include a return to her missions. However, she did have permission to go back to Mozambique one more time: for the Papal Visit. Instead, when Pope Francis landed there, Sister Maria, still in Italy, had landed in our hospital in Albano. So when the delegates from Africa began to arrive for the General Chapter, she sent them a message, "Please come and see me before the meetings start." The Mozambican sister told me that on Saturday evening, despite the retreat, she found herself turning on her cell phone, and there was an email from her novice director, Sister Maria: I am thinking of you and praying for the General Chapter. That night, the younger sister found it impossible to fall asleep. She tossed and turned, until late in the evening there was a knock on the door. It was Mother General, informing her of Sister Maria's sudden death.

How can we not see this missionary’s departure as a providential sign that, just as she went ahead in so many countries to prepare the way for the Pauline mission, she would be going ahead of the work facing the assembly in the coming weeks so that “the word of the Lord will speed on and triumph” through our mission in the future? 

I am counting on your prayers to help me and Sr Julia translate as well as possible the remainder of the (excellent beyond words) retreat conferences and to communicate accurately the content of the Superior General's report and the expert's input without stumbling too much along the way.... and counting on your prayers to the Holy Spirit to truly guide our Sisters in this most important month of discernment. (A General Chapter is the highest governing body in a religious congregation, even if its authority is only temporary. So it's kind of like a conclave that not only elects a Pope but gives him marching orders!)

Thanks a million!
A domani--or whenever! (Until tomorrow, or....)

Monday, August 26, 2019

Getting ready to go

It has been an intensely busy summer, and today , with the weather in Boston already hinting at Autumn, I have only four days left before departing for Rome for a biblical 40 days. My work there will be to serve as one of two English language interpreters (Sr Julia is the other) for a month-long international meeting of the Daughters of St Paul. Superiors and elected delegates from every part of the world will come together to elect our new Superior General and her council, and to establish the priority areas for our life and mission for the next six years. When I was first asked to perform this service, I reminded the provincial that while I can translate from Italian into English pretty well in real time, my spoken Italian is execrable. Functional, but "cave man Italian" nonetheless. I was still asked to go. (Good for humility!)

Packing has been going on a little bit at a time since I got back from my annual retreat. That is because I have also been involved full-time in the music apostolate during that same time. We learned and recorded several songs for a new Christmas concert CD and are now preparing for the concert itself, doing a kind of rough outline of the program and staging. Trying to follow Sr Nancy and Sr Tracey as they describe the pattern of steps and hand motions is good for warding off dementia, they tell me. It is certainly good for humility!

I also started facial neuromuscular retraining in mid-July, to try to gain more control of the left side of my face after an attack of shingles left the nerves to regrow in a weird tangle that is good for...humility. (Are you beginning to sense a pattern here? Because I sure am!!!)

Anyway, one thing for you to look for on the new Christmas CD is a song that will be "premiered" at our concerts.  Listen along with the sisters in the control room to one of the "takes" of a piece of this new song. (This is a very rough recording! It took us a while to get this very lovely song right.)

Mary Had a Son was written by Randy Cox, the music director who first heard our music playing in the gift shop at Gethesemane Abbey. He felt inspired to ask if there was a way he could work with us, just as we were praying for someone who could help us bring our music to a new level. Randy has helped us connect with a phenomenal arranger who has crafted settings made for our voices (not just generic "women's voices," but our own, having listened to our recordings to get a sense of our range and style). This has made it so much easier for us to sing, and made recording faster, too! Anyway, this beautiful new Christmas meditation which will be inaugurated this season was written by Randy Cox with music by Phillip Keveren, and is dedicated to the Daughters of St Paul. We think that is a first, too.
Speaking of firsts, this year we will offer our first-ever concert in Orange County, CA and our first concert in Mascoutah, IL (Belleville diocese, within driving distance of much of Illinois and Indiana).

Please look at the concert venues and dates and see if there's a way you can make a family event out of one of our Pauline Christmas concerts this year!

I hope to have a moment or two while in Italy to update you on things and share a few pictures... Two of us have permission for a quick trip to Florence (we'll be accompanied by an American sister who is stationed in Rome, and with whom I shared a year of novitiate). Then, after the mid-point of the meeting, we are promised a kind of field trip to a to-be-announced Marian shrine. (I'm hoping it will be a new-to-me shrine of the Blessed Mother!)

And speaking of Our Lady, today we welcomed the Pilgrim Virgin, not of Fatima, but of Aparecida (the Patroness of Brazil). This tiny statue (about 20" high) is a replica of the one in the national shrine, and usually visits the parishes of Brazil. She is truly a pilgrim, because some of those parishes are quite remote. Even now when she goes home to visit (every other year) it takes our Sister Liria three days to get to her parents' house from the nearest city. (She grew up without Sunday Mass: a priest would make the rounds of the villages, coming to her farming community every two months or so. The leading families would simply take turns hosting prayers on Sunday so that the Lord's Day was duly observed and his Word received with reverence.)

Anyway, for the next two months, Our Lady of Aparecida will be visiting the Brazilian immigrants in North America, a good many of whom are in New England, and she started her visit in our home!

Thursday, August 01, 2019

TOB: As Timely as Ever

In the week since I've been back from the retreat house (and before I go back again, next time for my actual retreat), Theology of the Body issues have been back in the news.

Marc Chagall, The Four Seasons, det. (Chicago)
There was a veritable storm on #CatholicTwitter over changes at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family in Rome, which as of 2017 is being completely restructured (under a Motu Proprio from Pope Francis). In fact, the Institute founded by Pope John Paul has been dissolved, and a new one with a slightly broader name and mission (John Paul II Theological Institute for Matrimonial and Family Science) has been established in its place. Students who were already enrolled in studies will be able to finish their degrees according to the former program ("if they wish"!), keeping their same doctoral advisors.

At this stage, all of the earlier Institute's professors have been terminated, a few positions and one major course area eliminated, and there is general consternation over the future of the Institute. Those changes will obviously also eventually affect the Institute's branches in other parts of the world (including the US). Current and prospective students are in dismay. Since very little was coming from the official media office (at least in English), this left a lot of room for speculation, most of it on the negative side. I must confess that the response from the official media office in answer to the criticisms on social media did not really encourage my confidence, but it has increased my prayers. In the end, God is always in charge, no matter the human machinations.

Then there was the story of the baby on the doorstep. Ten days ago, a Florida man answered a knock at the door, and found the police there with a newborn baby. The infant had been left on the doormat of his apartment. A note with the child gave the time and place of birth (5:45 pm, in the bathroom) and asked that the baby be taken to the hospital, a safe haven. (Unfortunately this was not done, since neighbors had heard the baby crying and called 911 earlier.)

That mother, a victim of domestic violence, gave birth alone and unaided.  Alone and unaided, still under threat of unspeakable violence, she tenderly washed her baby and fed him, swaddled him in a t-shirt, and when the coast was clear, brought him to the attention of a neighbor she hoped she could trust with the baby's life. The note explained that the father "is a dangerous man" who "tried to kill us both," and asked that everything be kept secret.

And then there is the story of the sixth wife of the fabulously wealthy Emir of Dubai. According to yesterday's news, she asked a British court that a "forced marriage protection order" be applied to one of her two children, and that both children be made "wards of the court."

Pope John Paul said over thirty years ago: Woman is "the master of her own mystery" [TOB 110:7-9].

With the Bible, Pope John Paul insists that "The 'language of the body' reread in the truth goes hand in hand with the discovery of the inner inviolability of the person." This is precisely what we see those two women in the news intuitively and so rightly defending. The Pope goes on: "When the bride [in the Song of Songs] says, 'My beloved is mine,' she means at the same time, 'It is he to whom I entrust myself'... The freedom of the gift is the response to the deep consciousness of the gift expressed in the bridegroom's words" which had acknowledged her self-possession: "A garden closed, you are, my sister, my bride; a garden closed, a fountain sealed" (Songs 4:21). "One can say that both metaphors express the whole dignity of the woman, who, as a spiritual subject, possesses herself and can decide not only the metaphysical depth, but also the essential truth and authenticity of the gift of self that tends toward the union about which Genesis speak" [TOB 110:4].

Clearly, as in the two women's stories, this is not the way the world actually is. But the Pope's words are more than wishful thinking or the theme of the next Disney princess story. According to Pope John Paul, who clearly remembered the scores of couples who had bared their souls to him across the decades, this is the way we were made: this is God's real plan for us. To the extent that we live according to it, the family and society flourish. The farther we depart from it, the more the family (and each member of it) suffers.

How can we help society awaken from its delusions about atomized, individualistic freedom (apart from the "sincere gift of self" that is the secret of human fulfillment) and from the loss of a sense of the reality of the body?

Friday, July 19, 2019

Time-Out for TOB (again?!)

I'm at the retreat house this week, not on retreat but for a “writer's retreat.” There actually is a spiritual retreat going on, so the atmosphere is quite recollected while I am working on a Theology of the Body project for our MYSISTERS community. (Hopefully that project will eventually reach a broader audience as well, in some form.)

During this time, I've been reviewing my old notes (and the half-written project that has been on hold for ages), as well as picking up the text of JP2's talks again and taking down pertinent passages in longhand. I have to confess that I was feeling a bit of scruples over this, knowing that my take on the Pope's talks is a step or two removed from the needs out there in the real world. And yet those realities kept coming at me this week from Catholic Twitter, as if to emphasize the need for all sorts of “takes” on the Theology of the Body (maybe even mine).

The first of those realities was an opinion piece by Fr. Peter Daly, “The priesthood is being crucified on the cross of celibacy”(@NCRonline, July 15). From the context, it is clear that this crucifixion is some kind of problem. The real problem is that being conformed to "Christ and him crucified" is the whole point of Christianity. (It was the focus of Paul's preaching, according to 1 Corinthians:1, and his life, according to Philippians 3.) So that would put clerical celibacy right at the center of … Gospel life. Especially since Jesus himself was the one to introduce celibacy as way of life in the first place. (As more than one respondent to the piece noted, complaints about and/or proposals to optionalize priestly celibacy almost always appeal to contemporary expectations and almost never to the prophetic words and example of Jesus.)

The comment stream went on, by the way, for days. Then toward the tail end of many responses to Fr Daly's piece, someone posted a challenge (it has since been deleted), asking for “full detail how celibate folk deal with natural sexual urges.” This was bolstered with the claim that “sexual release is healthy and a biological necessity.” Well, the “celibate folk” and quite a few supporters came out en masse, some of them taking the question seriously, but the majority (mostly guys) blowing off the question and laughing at the “scientific” datum. Among the more important responses was one woman's short thread, which I retweeted (see end). Unfortunately, I was among those who could not take the man's question too seriously, and for effect, I quoted his claim about sexual release in my retweet. How shocked I was to receive a message from him the next morning thanking me for agreeing with him, and asking me for a woman's perspective on the matter (hint: see end). I confess I did not respond well. I even said that I thought the idea was “preposterous.” What bothered (and continues to bother) me the most about it is the way this idea seems to make a kind of idol of the whole sexual aspect of the person, as if this one dimension was actually the core of human life: of an individual human life.

Now after prayer and reflection it has sunk in, ever so slowly and painfully, that this is where many people are really truly coming from; that this is the way people do think; that their understanding and experience of their own humanity is that limited, that un-free. The person who posted this was not some kid living in his parents' basement, but a professional man in the prime of life. This is probably what his father had taught him, and what he was teaching his own kids, and he could not even conceive of anything different, not even for the highest motivation. I completely missed that. And hours later, the man's entire Twitter account had been deleted. I couldn't even reach out to say “I'm sorry.”

Then I came across @TravelingNun (not a nun; not Catholic, either, as far as I know, but a chaste Christian intellectual). Her provocative question raised much the same issue, but from an LGBTQ perspective:

@TravelingNun has the most nuanced theological position of all. (I wouldn't be surprised if she has read all of TOB.)

Really, all three posts deal with the same subject Pope John Paul covers in the first 27 sessions of Theology of the Body (when he's only revving up the engines). It is what @TravelingNun is hinting at: We are not dealing with the situation that God created us to experience. We are facing something not of his making.

And Pope John Paul wants us to look at that situation squarely, acknowledge it honestly, and then listen as Christ makes his “appeal to the human heart.” It is an appeal to “historical man,” to man and woman as they find themselves—with hearts not always under their own control.

As I have been reading Pope John Paul's words today, I see the man from Twitter reading over my shoulder, shaking his head in a mixture of disbelief and irritation: “Where has this been all my life? Why have I been left on my own to deal with unwelcome and intrusive temptations with only the guidance of 'Thou shalt nots,' when there are whole traditions that could strengthen me from the inside and set me free? Why have I been cheated for so long?...
Why didn't anyone tell me?”
Even the pagans of ancient Greece and Rome had more to work with than Catholic adults in America under age 65. At least the pagans knew about the “cardinal virtues” of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. For two generations now, though, Catholics, are deprived through no fault of their own of basic formation in those old virtues (the word itself connotes maturity, strength, and self-possession) and, like everybody else, are at the mercy of their passions, rather than in possession of themselves through self-mastery. How nearly unthinkable it must be to keep the letter of the law of the 6th and 9th Commandments (never mind the Sermon on the Mount!) without having first been trained and schooled in the cardinal virtues! Avoiding sin must be like life on a storm-rocked sea without navigation skills or tools that could tell you where and when the storms are likely to arise or who you could skirt them. Life at the mercy of the waves would be all you know.

I think of a man deleting his entire 9 year Twitter account over the fallout from one poorly expressed question. And it turns out he really meant it.

Yet there are skills (from nature itself) and tools (the helps we find in grace) targeting precisely these types of storms... I will only briefly mention them here; for an adult this is really the area for a spiritual director's expertise. (There are also books that help with the first steps: Planof Life: Habit to Make You Grow Closer to God is one of them.)

The skills are largely in the areas of self-knowledge and self-mastery: consistent, life-long practices, not emergency procedures (though it doesn't hurt to have a few personalized approaches for occasions when one is caught off-guard). These are what make a person interiorly free. This is why we teach little children to make small acts of self-discipline for Lent. For now it is the urge to grab that piece of chocolate or that cookie (still warm from the oven!), but later, the urges will be stronger, and with far more delectable objects—not that these inclinations are always to be suppressed, either! 

Self-mastery is not self-denial of every good thing that comes our way, but part of plan of life, in view of being the kind of person who is free for the greatest of the good things that are meant to be ours. Fr Landry, echoing St Josemaria, says that the first and greatest act of self-mastery most of us can put into practice immediately and easily is simply getting up every morning at the appointed time. (Even on Saturday!). The kind of person who overcome the tendency to hit the snooze button is also the kind of person with the resources to more easily master other sorts of bodily indulgences.

“At the price of mastery over these impulses, man reaches that deeper and more mature spontaneity with which his 'heart,' by mastering these impulses, rediscovers the spiritual beauty of the sign constituted by the human body in its masculinity and femininity” [TOB 48:5].

The “tools” are supernatural: fasting, prayer (also good for emergencies!), sacramentals (Holy Water, the Sign of the Cross, etc.) and frequent celebration of the sacraments. The sacrament of Penance (confession) combines self-knowledge with sacramental grace as we bring to the Lord (in the person of the priest) the ways we recognize ourselves falling into sin: the tendencies, the habits, the little lies we tell ourselves that keep us trapped in sinful patterns. A certain self-mastery is also needed in order to establish a personal pattern of prayer. Making room for God in our daily schedule makes room for him in our mind. Giving space in our mind for God's Word (for example, the Mass readings of the day) lets the Holy Spirit purify and even sanctify our thoughts and attractions. Far from just avoiding sin or “dealing with urges,” the Holy Spirit gradually reshapes us into people who think, act, speak, and “gaze” the way Jesus did.

Christ's words, as Pope John Paul presents them in Theology of the Body, “indicate the road toward a mature spontaneity of the human 'heart' that does not suffocate its noble desires and aspirations, but on the contrary liberates and helps them” [TOB 48:5].

This is a lot, and it is characteristically cerebral, I know. I'm still processing. Now you can, too.


More for you to read:

I thought this one responded well to many of the questions and assumptions that are pretty commonplace on Catholic Twitter (and elsewhere!). It ends on a really high note, too!

A somewhat intellectual take (in case mine wasn't enough for you). I especially like the line referencing Pope Benedict's remark to the effect that celibacy agitates the world so much because it is a sign of the kingdom to come.

And here's one woman's response to the crass question that provoked all this. Although it is not my own take (apart from the brain-altering effects of porn use, it seems to me that a woman's characteristic movement is above all relational—"your urge shall be for your husband"; see Gen 3:16), this young woman is making some very important points. (I also couldn't resist including the final response from another reader!)

Monday, July 08, 2019

Vows season

We celebrated our Pauline Family's own "Solemnity of St Paul" the Sunday before last (June 30), and that means that this is the season of vows and anniversaries of vows. My own anniversary (41st!) was two days later: July 2 had been the Sunday closest to the Feast of St Paul in 1978.

This year on June 29 we had the great joy of welcoming Sister Amanda among our newly professed sisters. (In the video, we are all straining to hear Sister Amanda's "new name": we keep our baptismal name, with the option of adding a new "profession name" on the day of our first vows.) Sister Amanda's co-novice had made her own first vows in Germany hours earlier--and on Facebook we are seeing the photos of joyful sisters in Africa who made their first vows that same day.

Speaking of Africa, it was there (specifically in Kenya) that one of the sisters from our province made her final vows this year--a little earlier than the usual Feast of St Paul, however. Sister Jacqueline Jean-Marie met us as a graduate student at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign). (In fact, she is there right now, celebrating her final vows at her Alma Mater and its great Newman Center; we think this is the fifth celebration she has had!) Throughout her studies, Jackie continued her discernment, visiting different communities, but always coming back to our Chicago center. She made an impression on us the very first time she came through the door. The sisters were loading boxes into the van for a book fair. Jackie grabbed a box and joined the effort before she had even put her overnight bag into the guest room. That's the kind of person she is. Shortly after her graduation, she joined the postulancy.

Fast forward through the years, and Sister Jacqueline Jean-Marie (her name in vows) was stationed in Chicago and New Orleans, and then moved to Italy to prepare for final vows. She got permission to make her perpetual vows in May,  in her homeland, Kenya, and in her own district of Nyeri so that her extended family and her many friends could be a part of the day. Needless to say, our sisters in Kenya were happy to participate as well! Our provincial superior, Sister Donna, crossed the oceans for the special event and witness the vows in an official capacity. She also gave Sister her first official "mandate" as a perpetually professed sister, assigning her to New Orleans to be the National Director of the Pauline Cooperators Association (!).

I'll let Sister Jacqueline Jean-Marie tell the rest of the story:

Sr Donna arrived on May 15 and after a night of rest, we visited the Pauline apostolate in the main publishing house in Nairobi. We got to see the new bookstore inaugurated a few years ago and the building with their new sound studio and conference room. We also got to visit Editorial, digital, shipping, etc. and learn of the kinds of projects they are working on. The latest project in the works is the Roman Missal in Swahili which they are waiting approval of language. We also got to visit the Giraffe Center in Nairobi. I've heard about it but it was my first time visiting it...we had a blast feeding and learning about these beautiful and gentle creatures! We also made a brief stop at Gabriella house, the house of formation for the junior professed sisters. The house has a bookcenter which quite conveniently serves the many religious communities and students from a couple Catholic universities in the area who do not need to go down into the city to purchase their religious books.

Friday May 17 was travel day to Nyeri. It was a great time to share with Sr Donna the scenic route to the Mount Kenya Region (the central part of Kenya). My hometown of Nyeri is higher altitude than Nairobi and therefore a lot cooler. It is near Mount Kenya, a significant landmark for my country. Nyeri is farm country, rich with volcanic soil where we grow a lot of tea, coffee, corn, beans, all kinds of vegetables and horticulture. Before the rehearsal, we had lunch as a family with Sr. Donna. It was quite a peaceful afternoon and quite relaxing. Truly God-given because it would be the calm we would experience before the good storm of Profession! 

During our visit in Nyeri, we were hosted by some wonderful sisters, Sisters of Mary Immaculate. It was from there we shuttled to and from the Cathedral on May 18 and to my
parish - St Joseph's Catholic Church in Giakanja, Nyeri - on May 19 for the Mass of Thanksgiving. The celebrations were colored in a particular way by lots of dancing and singing by the Catholic Women Association (women dressed in blue and white or maroon). It is also a group that my mother is a member; one that provides tremendous prayer and moral support for families with children who serve as priests or religious in the Church.

The Archbishop of Nyeri, Anthony Muheria could not make it to celebrate the Mass due to another pressing engagement that came up just before the profession. However, he had
asked Archbishop Emeritus Peter Kairo to be the celebrant. Archbishop Kairo knows our community well. He had been the celebrant for perpetual professions of a few of our sisters and had even served on our FSP communications board. It was a delight to have him with us. The Mass was colorful and full of joy. I prayed for you and your intentions in a particular way at that Mass. The Lord was truly with us and His presence with us so tangible. I was particularly moved at the Litany of the Saints and could not hold back my tears of joy after the profession. It was amazing!

Right after the profession, there was photo-taking in the Cathedral and we proceeded to the hall where we continued the celebration with the reception. There was lots of food,
Sister Jacqueline Jean-Marie with traditional
Kikuyu dress over her habit.
music and more dancing and singing, truly wonderful efforts from the Cathedral and St Joseph parishes, our sisters, my family and friends. The hall was beautifully decorated by
the sisters. It was full. My Godmother, my mom and the Catholic Women Association dressed me up in our traditional Kikuyu tribal dress, a significant symbol of maturation in one's vocation (usually in marriage, or in this case religious life).

Mass of Thanksgiving at our village home in Nyeri on May 25, 2019

The last celebration was the Mass of Thanksgiving at our village home in Nyeri. By this time, Sr Donna had returned to the US and my brother and his family as well. So, just my sister and my parents as well as extended family members and friends were present. The pastor from my parish was the main celebrant. This Mass had a particular significance in my clan and family. It was a prayer of Thanksgiving offered by my family for the gift of perpetual profession. 

After the Mass, there was another celebration of blessings and prayers carried out in the Kikuyu tribal tradition. First, there was a prayer by the clan fathers, commending me to God and asking for His blessing in my new mission and "forever" stage of religious life. After this blessing, there would be the cutting of and sharing of goat meat. The women of the clan prepared a certain type of traditional porridge. This would be served from a gourd onto calabashes (half part of a gourd). These prayers and symbols of sharing in the meat and porridge served to solidify the seriousness of the commitment just made; that now, as a woman married forever into Christ's household, the mothers and fathers of the clan were offering up these special prayers and blessings as a call to grow in my vocation, to grow in maturation in my relationship with Christ my Bridegroom and to know that I am now not only called to receive but also be able to give counsel as a bride now and forever in "Christ's household".    

The prayer was said in my tribal language of Kikuyu. Here is the loose translation of the prayer:

"O God send forth your blessings upon this liturgy of Sr Jacqueline..."Thaai thathaiya Ngai thaai", (i.e. “May peace prevail between God and men)"

"You O God who is Alive, pour your Holy Spirit upon Sr Jacqueline so that she can announce and preach your words in the way of wisdom that You Yourself have given her... "Thaai thathaiya Ngai thaai", (i.e. “May peace prevail between God and men)"

"O God, our God, we, as the fathers of Sr Jacqueline, we give her to you so that she may serve Your People on this earth in which You Yourself created for us "Thaai thathaiya Ngai thaai", (i.e. “May peace prevail between God and men)"

O peace! O peace!
Nations...peace! Parents...peace! Church...peace! Men...peace! Women...peace! Children...peace! Sr Jacqueline...peace! Daughters of St Paul....peace! Priests of God...peace!
O peace! O peace! O peace!

Thursday, June 27, 2019

When Abraham's faith failed

Today's Mass readings work together powerfully to call us to profound faith, but they do it in a rather
sideways manner. In fact, the first reading, from the Book of Genesis, is practically the reverse of yesterday's first reading--and if not for the utter faithfulness of God, would seem, in the light of today's Gospel, to bode ill for Abram.

Sarai brings Hagar to Abram, determined
to  have an heir, one way or the other.
Matthias Stom; Wikimedia.
Yesterday, Abram "believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness" (words that will be fundamental to Paul--and to fundamentalists!). God had made an incredible promise, and backed that promise up with a covenant, and Abram knew that what God promised IS, even if it is as invisible to us as the stars are during the daylight. This is the faith that made Abraham the "father of all who believe" (Paul's words) and "our father in faith" (the Liturgy's words).

In the Gospel today, Jesus sums up the Sermon on the Mount by telling his disciples that "Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock." In today's reading, though....well, it was not Abraham's finest moment. Instead of relying on the words of God's promise, Abram today listened and acted on Sarai's words. The fear and anxiety Abram and Sarai must have experienced over their situation, the need to "do something" to "make it go away" once and for all, caused Abram and Sarai both to fall short in their relationship with God as they tried to force a solution that would resolve in a manageable timeframe and on their own terms.

I certainly find myself falling into the same kind of trap. It reminds me of that line in The Hound of Heaven where the soul "fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears..." (This is especially the case if I don't particularly like the direction I think I see things going... O Lord, increase my faith!)

This week I have seen pious, Mass-going, Rosary-praying Catholics spew forth some of the most cold-hearted, appalling comments ever about current social issues. I won't even repeat them. The remarks are as bad as any disparaging thing pro-abortion radicals say about unborn life. In fact, the type of expressions are interchangeable.

How have these hostile, cruel, inhuman convictions found a home in a Catholic heart? I believe that the way we use media has a powerful part to play in this. In fact, because of the stereotyped language in the harshest comments, I am convinced of it. Today there are many voices like that of Sarai. Their insinuations can enter into the fabric of people's thoughts and compromise their free and ardent response to the Word of God even when it is spoken as clear as day through the teachings of the Church, including the applications of the Gospel to urgent moral issues.
"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the Kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven." 
Today's Gospel contains a serious warning, but it comes to us on the vigil of the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. It is an appeal of love: "If you cannot even bring your words of prayer and your words about society into communion with each other, you can still bring that conflict to Me."
  • What causes me to pull back from the clear, concrete demands of Gospel, from "the will of the Father in heaven" that is especially detailed in Matthew 25 (vv 31-46)?
  • To what degree does anxiety and my own fear for the future color my ability to see other human beings and view moral issues with the eyes and mind of Christ? 
  • Whom do I look to as a reliable guide and interpreter when it comes to matters of good and evil, right and wrong, and the common good? Are their principles consistent with those given in the Catechism of the Catholic Church?
For a few days, keep a notebook handy to write down the key words that your most trusted radio and TV commentators use the most often. Next week, revisit the word list. Circle the words that impart a sense of calm or confidence. Underline the words that, just upon reading them, cause you to experience dread, anger, or anxiety. Now tally up the two kinds of words. What tendency dominates? What can you do about that?

If you simply find a lot of words, both uplifting and wrenching, perhaps you simply need to cut back on talk media in general. That can allow more space for the Word of God to "abide" and convince us, deep down and for good, of God's dependability. "Heaven and earth will pass away," and everything on the face of the earth, "but My Word will not pass away" (Lk 21:33).

Prayer for a Renewed Heart
by St Claude de la Colombière

O God, what will You do to conquer
Sacred Heart (detail), by Joseph Fanelli
the fearful hardness of our hearts?

Lord, You must give us new hearts,
tender hearts, sensitive hearts,
to replace hearts that are made of marble and of bronze.

You must give us Your own Heart, Jesus.

Come, lovable Heart of Jesus.
Place Your Heart deep in the center of our hearts
and enkindle in each heart a flame of love
as strong, as great, as the sum of all the reasons
that I have for loving You, my God.

O holy Heart of Jesus, dwell hidden in my heart,
so that I may live only in You and only for You,
so that, in the end, I may live with You eternally in heaven.