Thursday, April 23, 2015

A book for the long journey home

One of the most beautiful aspects of community life is the way it becomes another family that includes one's family of origin. A sister's mom was here over the past three weeks, baking every sort of yummy deliciousness that any granny would provide for her children--although on a rather large scale, there being 70+ eager hands reaching for the brownies. When there is a family crisis, we're on it for prayers. Everybody in community followed my sister's 30-year search for a husband and rejoiced when Mr Right appeared in New Orleans. And when a loved one is dying, it matters to all of us.

It used to be a standard spiritual practice:
the prayer for a "happy death." Even better
when your son the priest is helping you pray.
And so today at lunch, a sister who was absent for several months while her mother was on hospice care shared some stories. In once sense, some of what Sister Regina said was anxiety-producing: Her mom lived close enough to the Oregon border that the availability and proximity of assisted suicide has already had an influence on people's attitudes. One nurse, hearing that Sister's mom was on hospice, spoke gushingly of the doctor upstairs who was all into "death with dignity," completely clueless that this might be not only offensive but even frightening to someone caring for a dying parent. Sister had to emphasize what wonderful and respectful care her mother (and all of the family) was receiving; how empowered she was every step of the way to make decisions about her care; how well-informed she and her children (especially the son with medical power of attorney) was kept. Sister also learned of some of the challenges (one might even say threats) the hospice model is facing from changes in the health care landscape.

But she also had some wonderful things to share. My favorite was when one of her sisters vanished for the better part of an afternoon. Her brothers and sisters started to get worried when they realized that none of them (and this is a very large family) had caught a glimpse of her for quite some time.

Suddenly she appeared. With a book.

"You have all got to read this!" she said emphatically.  "Everything we need to know is right here!" She was holding a Pauline classic, Midwife for Souls, by hospice nurse Kathy Kalina. Originally written and published twenty years ago to give hospice nurses extra formation in the spiritual dimensions of accompanying the dying, it has become a kind of vademecum also for families (especially Catholic families) as they walk a loved one toward the Gates of Paradise. Even a family that includes a priest and two nuns among the siblings needs extra help and guidance at a time like that. "That book affirmed everything we had already been doing," Sister Regina told us, "and it let us know the kind of things we would be experiencing--and in the end, did experience." One by one, the siblings poured over the book.

"There were things that happened that the book prepared us for. If we had not read it, we might have responded differently, but the book showed us that, 'See, this really does happen to people'." Pretty soon just about anyone who came within Sister Regina's orbit was holding their own copy. The hospice nurses (of course). The doctor. The family friend. The random person who got swept into the family galaxy's gravitational field. Word is beginning to spread around the whole town: there is a book that tells you everything you need to know about walking with someone on the last steps of the journey of life.

Quiet, peaceful deaths at home don't make it to the front pages of our newspapers (unless the deceased is someone of the stature of Chicago's Cardinal George). Sadly, deaths by assisted suicide (and the hard cases that are used to plead for tolerance of euthanasia) do get the headlines. That can make it seem as though there aren't the necessary tools for helping a person, much less a family, through the process of a natural death. A lethal cocktail just might look like an attractive option. That's why a book like Midwife is so important. As a Pauline sister, I was moved and encouraged that a book we first published years ago is not only relevant and effective, but essential (perhaps more now than ever).

How can we help get the word out to families that are right now struggling with a terminal diagnosis and do not know where to turn for day to day guidance?

Read a chapter:

Reviews of Midwife for Souls:
The Vocation of the Hospice Nurse: "A Midwife for Souls" in Humanum.
Midwife for Souls by Trish Borgdorff (former Hospice social worker)

Today's news and today's first reading

After I updated yesterday's brief post to include the information from Ethiopia relative to the tragedies in the Mediterranean, today's first reading from Mass seems almost prophetic. In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke write about how the persecution of the Christians in one part of the world led to the spread of the Gospel to other parts. Today we hear about an Ethiopian official, a eunuch (who, for that reason could never be accepted as a convert to Judaism) who, as he was returning from a pilgrimage to the Holy City, was reading aloud (the norm in ancient times) from the prophet Isaiah.
Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,so he opened not his mouth.In his humiliation justice was denied him.Who will tell of his posterity?For his life is taken from the earth.
The recent execution videos from the Middle East are in their own way a fulfillment of that prophecy.  But the Gospel tells us the rest of the story: "I will raise him on the last day.... Whoever believes has eternal life." 

Eternal life, in John's Gospel, is not just "interminable life" or "life with infinite duration," but a kind of "unlimited life," "life without boundaries." It is a participation in God's own life, something that cannot be seized or taken by force. The Easter season is all about this life. For 50 days we are being brought, step by step, in a contemplation of the life that Jesus intends for us to live "to the full." Pentecost is not the end of the Easter season, but the day that the fulness of that life becomes accessible to us. 

May it be so!!!

Saying Good-Bye (for now) to Cardinal George

I saw the news on Twitter, surely a sign of the times. The first archbishop-Emeritus in the history of the Archdiocese of Chicago, Francis Cardinal George, had died, just months after seeing his successor take possession of the See. Now, as the images appear of the faithful waiting in lines that stretch down Chicago Avenue to pay their respects, I wish I could be back in Chicago for a day to offer mine there at the Cathedral.

I have many great memories of Cardinal George from my 13 years in the Windy City. He was as available as a Cardinal could be (when we invited him to Evening Prayer and supper with us, we had to schedule it six months in advance!), but despite being so busy, with back to back meetings, appointments, visits (and the occasional trip to Rome), he paid attention to the little things.

I had seen the Cardinal and shaken his hand at a few church-y events when, one evening, I ran into him in the lobby of the Union League Club after yet another church-y event. I re-introduced myself as "Sister Anne Flanagan of the Daughters of St Paul." "Yes," the Cardinal said, "I recognized you."

The same thing happened years down the road when I was appointed to the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council, a post that involved monthly day-long meetings (yuck!) with the Cardinal (wow!). At my first meeting, the Cardinal came over to welcome me to the Council. He asked a few questions about our Michigan Avenue bookstore's prospects (challenging!) and told me his hopes for retirement: "What I'd like to do when I retire is go down to the bookstore a couple of times a week and just sit there and be available for people's questions." "We're going to hold you to that, Your Eminence," I told him with a serious nod. When I brought a tiny video camera to one meeting, hoping to get a little input for NunBlog readers, the Cardinal stayed a few minutes extra for my sake. (Too bad the batteries didn't last longer than a few seconds.)

Signing those books for us.
I used to bring reams of paper to those APC meetings so that I could jot down the Cardinal's observations and his answers to Council member's questions, even though we were not free to make these public. Many of his comments later appeared in his article for the Catholic New World; for example, the observation that if the Church is supposed to catch up with the world, that means that something other than the Gospel is setting the criteria. He spoke of political matters affecting the life and freedom of the Church, presenting the issues in the light of American history and his own experiences (for example, of ministering in an area where the KKK is still a force to be reckoned with); he gave his own reactions to things in the news; he told us what it was like standing on the balcony of St Peter's after the conclaves of 2005 and 2013; he told us, in all frankness, that he prayed daily for a good death (a concept which some members of the Council had never encountered).

Right after the Cardinal's book "The Difference God Makes" was published, we were asked to make it available at an Archdiocesan event. The Cardinal arranged to come to our booth at a certain time to autograph copies for those who had purchased it. As the last eager buyer turned away, the Cardinal offered to sign some extra copies for the bookstore. Little did he know. The superior had already called. She wanted him to sign thirty copies. Francis Cardinal George looked at me under deeply, ironically arched eyebrows. "You're going to pay for this!" All I could do was plead holy obedience...

Gratifyingly, he even appreciated my cooking. (For that Evening Prayer and supper arrangement, we had asked his personal assistant if he had any dietary restrictions, and she said no, but he gets served chicken all the time; would it be possible to prepare something different?) The Cardinal had three helpings of my tangerine-rosemary salmon.

There were people who avoided Cardinal George, who felt he grated them the wrong way, who didn't appreciate that, as pastoral as his heart was, he was always a professor (with two PhD's how could he even help it?). Their loss, I'm afraid. I always left the Cardinal feeling challenged to think more broadly and more deeply, and to bring my perspective more and more in line with the Gospel.

You were a good pastor to me, Cardinal George. May you rest in the peace of Jesus.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Immigrant or martyr: for some people those are real alternatives.

The deadliest migration route in the world. And yet people are desperate enough to risk their lives (and their families') to cross it.

A news item from Fides, a Catholic news agency that specializes in updates from mission territories, sheds more light on the phenomenon, and connects it with the latest series of beheadings of people whom ISIS identifies as members of  the "hostile Ethiopian Church". 
"According to government sources and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, most probably the victims [of beheading by ISIS] are poor Ethiopian immigrants belonging to the multitudes of men and women trying to reach Europe through Libya and then embark on the boats managed by the criminal network of smugglers."
The horrific loss of life at sea is forcing Europe to take action, not only to rescue the next threatened boatload of travelers, but to address some of the reasons these people are taking their lives in their hands. As the month of May peeks around the corner, would it be too much to ask to pray a daily Rosary, or at least a decade of the Rosary, for Our Lady's guidance?

Friday, April 17, 2015

Roll 'em! This is the day for Media Apostle: the Father James Alberione Story!

Yes, at long last you can watch the movie you have heard about, maybe even donated to: Media Apostle, the Father James Alberione Story. You can order the DVD if that works better for you (and it is nice to have a DVD to loan to your parish priest or adult faith coordinator), or just watch it here on NunBlog or on the Vimeo page.

Certainly you will want to watch the trailer, which is a fine piece of work on its own.

I am giving you the 90-minute version here, but you can click here for the 50-minute version. I recommend the 90-minute (and not only because I am in it!): I found that even the first five minutes of the full version are quite rich in communicating Alberione's spirit.

After you have enjoyed the film, PLEASE do us the favor of sharing the link far and wide, not just on your usual social media channels, but with Catholic media organizations and media professionals. They need to know of Blessed Alberione's promise that from heaven he would be especially attentive to those who use media for the good.

And visit the Media Apostle website to order the DVD, download the discussion guide, view the film clips and photos, and find media literacy links for parents, social media graphics with quotes by Blessed James, and more! 

- - - - - -

Technical details: This is streaming video. If you buy it, you can access the film anytime, anywhere, on any Internet-connected device (using the email address and password you assign at the time of purchase).  Or "rent" it for 72 hours and within that period of time view it as often as you like from any of your Internet-connected devices. 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

A shout-out to Michael Durney

Michael, could you please resubmit your comment on the Cinderella post? I attempted to do comment moderation on my phone and, well, not a good idea...

Sunday, April 12, 2015

This is the Day!

On this eighth day, the octave day of Easter, here is a twofer: Byrd and Palestrina's renditions of the Easter antiphon, "This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Alleluia!" (Sorry about the ad; the singing of King's College Choir will more than make up for the intrusion. If you cannot see the video, click here for it.)

Saturday, April 11, 2015

This is the Day!

Here is a chant version of the Easter antiphon "This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Alleluia!" (If the video does not appear on your screen, click here for it.)

Friday, April 10, 2015

This is the Day!

Another rendition of the Easter antiphon "This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Alleluia" by William Byrd. (If the video does not appear on your screen, here is the link.)

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Coming soon from Father Barron

Fr Robert Barron, the Chicago priest whose internet trailers alone are worthwhile viewing.
Here's the trailer for an upcoming series confronting the God questions; the series is surely something to look forward to. Learn more about it on the Word on Fire website.

This is the Day!

Another setting of the Easter antiphon, "This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Alleluia!" (If the video does not appear on your screen, click here for it.)

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

The work of bees...

...and of your servants' hands" (from the Exsultet). The convent's Paschal candle was hand-decorated by our Provincial superior, Sister Mary Leonora. Since we are, in this year of consecrated life, focusing more intensely on the sacrament of Baptism, she made that the special focus of her artistry. Everything comes from Christ, the center, and from his pierced heart. The green plants are fed by the flowing waters (to the left), and the "fruits" produced by grace are manifest in gold.

The novices continued the theme by creating a flowing fountain next to the candle stand.

This is the Day!

The incomparable William Byrd provides today's rendition of the Easter antiphon, "This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Allelluia!" (If the video does not appear on your screen, click here for it

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

A Man for Our Season

Monday, a friend of mine who runs a book kiosk at her local mall commented on Facebook, "I guess I'll have to start stocking Wolf Hall now." She was referring to the novels behind the BBC (Masterpiece) series that is getting rave reviews in the entertainment press. Wolf Hall is set in Henry VIII's England and gives us an image that the UK paper The Telegraph considers a pastiche of "historical fiction" and "fictional history." With impeccable acting and glorious costumes, it would be just the sort of program I would stay up to watch, except for the revisionism that insists on depicting Thomas More (one of the greatest Englishmen of all times) as a misogynist villain and the crass and violent Thomas Cromwell as admirable, if street-smart.

Cromwell did not personally oversee the
destruction of the Walsingham Priory
and shrine, but it took place early
on during his watch, just three years
after Thomas More's death.
The Telegraph goes so far as to call Cromwell the "Islamic State" of the Tudor era, given the (indisputable) fact that he oversaw, indeed instigated, the destruction of 97% of England's art and cultural artifacts: not only stained glass windows, frescoes and entire gothic churches and monasteries, but their libraries: how many thousands of illuminated manuscripts, how much literature, how many one-of-a-kind cultural contributions were lost to the ages by his fanatical zeal in wiping out all traces of English Catholicism?

"...underneath [the] fictionalized portrayal of Henry VIII’s chief enforcer, there is a historical man, and he is one whose record for murder, looting, and destruction ought to have us apoplectic with rage, not reaching for the popcorn" (The Telegraph: read the rest here).

As for portraying Thomas More as a misogynist, nothing could be more perversely unhistoric: The
The Thomas More household. (Count the ladies--and their books).
By Rowland Lockey, after Hans Holbein the Younger
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
scholarly achievements of More's daughters (especially Margaret, who published her first book, a translation of Erasmus from the Latin, at age 19) were recognized by Europe's leading intellectuals (including Erasmus). As to his character, some fifteen years before his execution,  a Robert Whittington testified: "More is a man of an angel's wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability?" Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury commented,"It is an extraordinary and perverse achievement of Hilary Mantel and BBC Drama to make of Thomas Cromwell a flawed hero and of St Thomas More, one of the greatest Englishmen, a scheming villain." 

There is something in the water these days that encourages a bit of iconoclasm; Thomas More is not alone in being subjected to that. But as I reflect on the situation, it seems to me that in some way, Catholic storytelling also bears some responsibility. The way we have often told the stories of our saints involved a bit of white-washing and revisionism, too. How many biographies of saints offer a vision  that matched all the expectations of the age that wrote them? Indeed, the word "saint" suggests a person without human flaws; someone who achieved not only heroic virtue, but social and cultural perfection. Unfortunately, failing to appreciate and accept the saints as people of their own era, we leave ourselves vulnerable to scandal when the assumptions of their age and ours do not coincide.

Thomas More was a man of immense stature: intellectually  as a leading humanist (this is the inventor of "Utopia") and as an educator, in his own legal profession and in his profound spiritual life. But he remained a work in progress, not perfect--certainly not by 21st century standards. As a public official, More signed the warrants for the execution of heretics (heresy was not merely a religious offense but a political one, since it threatened the one thing that kept the various social classes united). He was a man of his (changing) times, who assumed (as we do) the values of his surrounding culture and acted on them.  But when More was in prison, he wrote to Margaret in a way that suggests that his own experience of condemnation by the government had led him to repent of the capital cases he had overseen. Only in recent decades are we challenging something that was as taken for granted 500 years ago as the death penalty, but the fact of More's participation in the execution of heretics may be a source of scandal to the devout, or of a kind of schadenfreude for those less inclined to think well of Catholicism. And given the issue which led to More's execution (the King's Great Matter involved a revision of marriage law), some may be tempted to paint the former Lord Chancellor of England as intolerant, close-minded, a man incapable of adapting to new ideas, a hater, even.

Hopefully, enough voices are being raised in England (which suffered the ravages of Cromwell's ideological ambition) to lead interested people into a deeper study of life in Catholic England, even though so many of its traces were wiped away (or burned away, as with the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham) so methodically. Perhaps also the way lives of the saints are told and written can better portray the saints in their own milieu, and not in a sanitized version of ours.

Read more:
Thomas Cromwell was the Islamic State of his day: Forget Wolf Hall: this pathologically ambitious "ruffian" sent hundreds to the chopping block and destroyed England's religious and artistic heritage.
Bishops criticise ‘perverse’ depiction of St Thomas More in Wolf Hall
Priest: Admiring Thomas Cromwell is a respectable way of expressing anti-Catholic feeling
Wolf Hall: History through an Anti-Historical, Anti-Catholic Lens

The Center for Thomas More Studies

Historical Fiction:
If you enjoy historical fiction, but are distressed by the venom in Wolf Hall, how about a trilogy of Tudor-era novels that probably more accurately reflect the ordinary people's feelings at the time: 

The Crown
The Chalice
The Tapestry

This is the Day!

During the Easter Octave, the Church repeats at least twice a day an antiphon drawn from Psalm 118, "This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Alleluia!" Since this is a very old tradition, there are many musical settings of the verse. Since it is an Easter antiphon, those musical settings can be quite glorious.

Yesterday it occurred to me how nice it would be to share one of these musical settings each day of the Easter Octave. Since the idea came late, I can't offer a full octave's worth, but I can still do something!

Here is a favorite version, even if the rendition is not perfect (click here if the video does not appear on your screen):