Thanks to Two New Witnesses

This morning at Mass, I had the unexpected privilege of seeing something that in nearly a half-century of being Catholic, I never had: an adult confirmation. It was powerful to watch Rev. Tom Odorizzi, C.O, who leads the growing New Brunswick Congregation of the Oratory, confirm two men into the faith.

Dressed in dark suits, the men stood solemnly while their sponsors, also middle-aged men dressed in suits,  placed their hands on their shoulders as the priest blessed and anointed them.

 We applauded loudly when the sacrament was over, welcoming two new witnesses into the Body of Christ. How fitting this happened on Vocations Sunday, a time we all are asked to pray for an increase in religious vocations and also to consider how Christ, our Good Shepherd, beckons us.

Indeed, every confirmed Catholic is called to spread the Gospel, by what we say and by how we live our lives. The introduction to the Rite of Confirmation states: “by the sacrament of Confirmation, [the baptized] are more perfectly bound to the Church and are enriched with a special strength of the Holy Spirit. Hence they are, as true witnesses of Christ, more strictly obliged to spread and defend the faith by word and deed.”

In his homily, Father Tom spoke to us about how difficult and necessary it is for Christians to want nothing except Christ. “The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want,” as the psalmist writes, not the approval of others, not the acceptance of our culture, not material success. Our focus, always, should be on Christ.

The Church renews Herself through new witnesses. They renew the hearts of those of us confirmed decades ago. I was moved at the end of Mass when the soloist sang an ancient Irish melody: The King of Love My Shepherd Is. This is what it’s all about!

Musings After Seeing the Movie “Bridesmaids”

My husband invited me on a date tonight – dinner at our favorite diner, followed by a movie. The movie he had in mind was Bridesmaids, a comedy Universal Pictures released on Friday. My husband warned me it’s rated R, because he knew I likely would become uncomfortable with at least some aspect of the movie. And I was.

I also laughed so hard at some of the over-the-top gross-out humor in the movie that I was crying. And some of the events in the movie tugged at my heart. The movie also provoked me to question how best to live in a world that doesn’t always reflect my beliefs.

Bridesmaids is full of profanity as well as sex between unmarried couples. It also offers slapstick humor and a sweet, budding romance between the maid of honor (played by Saturday Night Live’s Kristen Wiig) and a state trooper. I was touched by the appearance of Jill Clayburgh in this movie. She plays the lead’s lonely divorced mother. (Clayburgh died before the film was released.) In short, I’d recommend this movie to my middle-aged friends.

But what troubles me is that this movie is being marketed as appropriate for older teens. The producer is the same guy who produced “Knocked Up,” and “The 40-year-old Virgin,” movies I have assiduously avoided. One review says: “Older teens, especially girls, may be drawn to the film’s R-rated antics and female-heavy cast.”

What is the world of relationships like in this movie? In Bridesmaids, every male-female relationship we see forming begins with sex, and then ends with the possibility of love or romance. Sex is in no way sacred here. The married women are miserable. Except for the bride-to-be, played by Maya Rudolph, the single ladies are unhappy, too.

Ultimately, the movie tells us a hook-up culture and crass materialism won’t make us happy. The good guy in the movie turns out to be a Wisconsin state trooper with a radar gun. But in order to send this message, we see plenty of gratuitous scenes of icky relationships. If you plan to see this movie, don’t bring the kids along.

Watching Bridesmaids provoked my thinking. It served as  a reminder to me. It made me wonder: how do we live in this broken world? How do we seek the face of Christ in those we encounter?

Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman answers this question much better than I can:

Stay with me, and then I shall begin to shine as you shine; so to shine as to be a light to others. The light, O Jesus, will be all from you. None of it will be mine. No merit to me. It will be you who shines through me upon others…. Make me preach you without preaching – not by words, but by my example and by the catching force, the sympathetic influence, of what I do – by my visible resemblance to your saints, and the evident fullness of the love which my heart bears to you.

Update: How come my comment wasn’t published?

Thanks to “Be Different: Adventures of a Free-Range Aspergian”

“Be Different” isn’t a Catholic book, isn’t a Christian book, and isn’t a spiritual book. This is a book about a man who struggled his whole life to make friends and to fit in and finally was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at age 40.  His story awed me and reminded me how God has created us all with immeasurable love.

I bought John Elder Robison’s audio book Thursday afternoon at a Barnes and Noble near the public high school where I teach. By Friday evening, I had listened to the entire six hours of it while driving the family minivan. So you have a sense of how much driving I do, as well as how compelling I found Robison’s tales. He narrates his own audio book, which gave me an even more vivid sense of his life – how he struggled to understand the world beyond his own thoughts and feelings.

Asperger’s Syndrome is a form of autism, a neurological disability. Chances are,  someone in your family, or neighborhood, or circle of friends, is autistic; the rate is rising annually. (Recent American Idol contestant James Durbin has Asperger’s Syndrome) No one really knows whether the actual rates are climbing or whether we are doing a better job at diagnosing this disability. In any event, the book was a wonder to me. With dry wit and brutal honesty, Robison takes us on a tour of his Aspergian brain. While he never mentions his spirituality, the book left me in awe of how God creates such wondrous creatures as humans.

How easy it is to shrug off the complexities of life as a human. That is, until you know someone for whom these skills are a struggle. That certainly was the case with one of our sons, who struggled to make intelligible speech, and later, to read. His social skills, however, are far better than mine and his abiity to read social cues is well beyond his yers. For his part, Robison tells us how he spent years misunderstanding facial expressions and mistranslating social rules and yet had great success in teaching himself how to repair cars and invent sound systems for rock bands.  

I was wowed by the intensity with which Robison persisted in his efforts to face and cope with his disability. His hope, his persistence in the face of what might appear unbeatable odds, to me is a grace. And I was awed by the gifts Robison possesses because of, he believes, not in spite of, living with an Aspergian brain.

Despite considerable difficulties in his social life, Robison, who dropped out of high school in tenth grade and never returned to school, became the sound advisor to both Pink Floyd and KISS, for whom he created their rocket-launching laser guitars. He also worked for toymaker Milton Bradley, designing electronic games. Now he runs one of the country’s largest independent Land Rover, Rolls Royce and Bentley specialty repair shops. He writes: “I believe those of us with Asperger’s are here for a reason, and we have much to offer. This book will help you bring out those gifts.”

It is miraculous to me that people born with disabilities in one area are blessed with exceptional abilities in another. While I imagine my friends who are atheists might consider this attribute a compensatory adaptation that happened as humans evolved, I see the hand of God in this. Speaking of our own son, despite his fierce struggles with learning, he’s been blessed with an amazing ability to think on his feet and to conceptualize problems in three dimensions. That makes him a fearsome soccer goalie because he can foresee several plays ahead and then position himself in just the right spot to stop a goal.

Who brings us these gifts? St. James the Apostle tells us: “Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers: all good giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no alteration or shadow caused by change. He willed to give us birth by the word of truth that we may be a kind of first fruits of his creatures.

For Your Family Night at the Movies

Are you thinking about the weekend yet? Are you looking for something fun to do at home with your family? My husband discovered a gem of a movie the other night: The Emperor Waltz, directed by Billy Wilder. He taped it for me and we’ve been watching it together.

If you are a Wilder fan, as we are, then you know about Sunset Boulevard, The Apartment and Some Like it Hot. The Emperor Waltz is different; a light-hearted romance. A vehicle to show off Bing Crosby’s beautiful baritone, it tells the tale of a commoner (Mr. Crosby) an American salesman, and a Viennese countess (played by Joan Fontaine ) They own a mutt and a dog whose bloodlines go back centuries. respectively. You can guess where this one is going.

Yes, the plot is predictable but the story is so sweet, so charming that I would encourage you to rent the DVD, grab some popcorn and gather your whole family around to see it.

Wilder, who died in 2002 at age 95, was a Viennese Jew who was working in Berlin as a screenwriter when Hitler came to power. He fled to the United States and eventually blessed us all with a large body of film as one of Hollywood’s greatest and most successful directors. He won six Oscars.

Film critics consider The Emperor Waltz an exception to Wilder’s fabulous career. That is a bit unfair. We love the movie. I couldn’t find any clips from the movie online. Instead, here’s a clip of Mr. Crosby singing “Swinging on a Star.”

Because Mercy is Greater Than Justice

The afternoon of May 1 my husband and I experienced something mystical. It’s taken me a while to write this down because the feeling remains so powerful. Greg was at the shopping mall and I was at home planning lessons and menus.

About the same time, we both suddenly felt a powerful overwhelming sense of relief and release. You see, my husband narrowly survived the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center.

He escaped from the 68th floor of Tower One 11 minutes before the building collapsed.  Inexplicably, without warning, we both felt the weight of the trauma and the painful years following lifted. Monday night over dinner we discovered we’d both experienced the same powerful sense of relief at the same time.

What happened May 1? Pope John Paul II was beatified; Osama Bin Laden was killed; and the Church celebrated Divine Mercy Sunday. My husband and I felt no joy in Bin Laden’s death but we do feel that justice has been served. The desire for justice is very human, I believe; we want to see criminals punished.

But as I contemplated the death of the man who tried to murder my beloved, I also considered Bin Laden’s destiny, which now is in God’s hands. We have no way to know the state of his soul in the moments before his death; and the depth of God’s mercy remains a mystery. Taking a look at Blessed Pope John Paul II’s life, which mirrored Christ’s in so many ways, we learn that mercy is greater than justice.

Last night, during my School of Community we talked about Communion and Liberation’s statement on the events of May 1. One of my friends said since May 1 he has been meditating on a passage from Luke. I wasn’t familiar with it, so I googled it during the meeting and read it out loud. It gave me goosebumps.

Christ’s tells us that tragedy can befall people through no fault of their own and he tells us in the same breath that God is abundantly merciful. “Those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them –do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!”

He goes on to talk about the importance of mercy: “There once was a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard, and when he came in search of fruit on it but found none, he said to the gardener, ‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree but have found none. (So) cut it down. Why should it exhaust the soil?’ He said to him in reply, ‘Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future. If not you can cut it down.'”

We all fall short of the glory of God. As Christians, the task before us is to seek to be as merciful as Christ Himself. We can thank God for the witness of Blessed Pope John Paul II’s life. He faced evil head on, (shown above meeting with his would-be murderer) and yet somehow found the strength to forgive. As Pope Benedict XVI tells us: “Forgiving is not ignoring but transforming.”

With Gratitude to Grammy

The strong scent of lilies yesterday afternoon transported me back to my childhood and Easter season Sundays with grandmother and the rest of my extended family. Forty years ago, I was a little girl, the youngest of four siblings who piled into a station wagon and traveled many Sundays after Mass across Hudson River’s Tappan Zee Bridge with our parents to spend the afternoons with my dad’s parents.

Someone at my parish this weekend donated a bouquet of lilies to rest at the feet of the statue of Mary near the altar. I sat in a nearby pew at the 5 p.m. Mass.

How clearly I remember Grammy and Papa’s house, especially during this Easter Season. At Eastertime, Grammy would make us multi-course meals, and her home was filled with flowers. She would give us plastic eggs with dollar bills inside, Easter cards, and struffoli, a Neapolitan dessert of fried dough covered in honey and sprinkles.

As these memories came streaming back to me during Mass, I realized how blessed I am to have grown up with a wise grandmother.  She knew there is a life beyond this one, a life we cannot see; there is a God who calls out to us, who watches our lives, who speaks to us through them and who we will meet at the end of our earthly lives.

My grandmother, Maria Theresa Salerno, never learned to read or write. She spent her life working – in the tobacco fields of her native Caserta and later, in textile factories in Rochester, New York. I knew what she valued when I visited her home and saw the paintings of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the rosary above her bed, and the religious statues on her bureau drawer. She remained a seamstress into her old age, using a spare room in her home for her business of mending clothes and hemming dresses. She also made aprons and dish towels and pot holders, which she would display on the door to this room. She loved to tell us about her customers.

Once, when I was a child, my grandmother told me this story: she was sick. She woke one night and saw a vision of the Blessed Mother in her bedroom. She told Mary she wanted to die. The Blessed Mother told her “It’s not your time yet. Your family needs you. You have more work to do.”

Because of Grammy, I grew up never doubting there was a reality beyond this one and a world of  angels and saints who we could talk to and who could talk to us. I knew Grammy had had a life of hard work and suffering but I also knew from her that God transports us beyond the smallness of our beautiful and difficult lives. And so I never doubted that what God did for Christ He does for us too. As today’s reading tell us: “God raised him up, releasing him from the throes of death,
because it was impossible for him to be held by it.”

When Grammy died, I was a teenager. I remember imagining angels and saints welcoming her to her heavenly home, where she could relax over coffee and enjoy long conversations with our Blessed Mother. 

Because Now That I’m Catholic, I Can’t Imagine Life Any Other Way

 Guest Post by Sandy Croslow

I’ve been attending Mass almost weekly for more than three years. Yet the handful of Masses I’ve attended since my confirmation at Easter Vigil have blown me away. Partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ makes me feel more a part of the Body of Christ than I could ever have imagined.

On Sunday, I attended Mass at All Souls’ Parish, the neighborhood parish in my hometown in the St. Louis suburbs. I knew no one but I felt at home. Sunday night I realized All Souls, a beautiful church by the way, is the only Catholic Church I ever attended with my mother: we went to a neighbor’s wedding there in the mid-1960s. (Pictured here in a photograph by Mark Scott Abeln, a convert)

Driving through the tornado damage in the St. Louis suburbs of Maryland Heights and Bridgeton, which were hit with an E4 tornado on Good Friday, was sobering. I’ve driven those streets countless times. The storm hit between my parents’ house in Maryland Heights and the nursing home where Dad now lives in Overland.

Last Tuesday, a good friend’s husband had a massive heart attack and miraculously survived. He made it to the hospital before the worst of the attack and they were able to revive him and insert a stent in a blocked artery. Such events jar us into the reality of the preciousness of life. We were visiting in the hospital family room when another friend arrived. This friend lost her husband to a heart attack a little over two years ago. Why does one man die and the other is spared? Why does one house remain standing in the path of the storm when all around are reduced to rubble? These and other such questions are those I’ve learned to entrust to God. It’s not easy, but I trust Him.

When we visited the Bishop of the Diocese of Belleville, Ill. for the Rite of Acceptance as part of our RCIA journey, Bishop Braxton told us: (and I paraphrase): “God is not God the way you would be god if you were god. He does not behave the way you would behave if you were god because He is God and you are not.”

Peace in the midst of the storm. Peace in the midst of the health crisis. Peace in the Body of Christ. Life with faith. I cannot imagine life without it.

Thanks to Easter and My Journey

Guest Post by Dee Sparacio

Last week, I spent hours in church. Not just the normal one-hour Sunday Mass, but the services on Thursday, Friday and Saturday known as the Easter Triduum. Attending those services gave me time to reflect on my ovarian-cancer journey and my faith.

On Thursday, I attended the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. The Mass was bilingual, Spanish and English and I loved listening to my fellow parishioners singing hymns in both languages. I watched as the chrism for the Anointing of the Sick sacrament was brought to the altar by a parishioner with very little hair on her head but a look of reverence on her face. I thought of the times I received the sacrament. I was anointed with chrism before both of my cancer surgeries. Sitting in the pew on Thursday, I once again felt the grace and calm of the anointing. There might not be a scientific study to prove that grace from the sacrament calms and strengthens. What I do know is the calm and strength I felt facing my surgeries.

Friday afternoon I attended the Passion Service with my husband, Nick. We walked into church as the dark clouds and drizzle began. Was that what is was like as Jesus hung on the Cross? After reading the Passion, a group of parishioners walked a large wooden Cross to the altar. Holding it upright the group invited parishioners to come forward. Row by row parishioners- young and old and some in wheelchairs and walkers came forward and genuflected or gave the Cross a light kiss or gentle touch. The church was full so it was a long wait to get to the front of the line and revere the Cross. I expected that I would start to get antsy waiting. But not this time. The waiting was OK. I thought of times after my cancer diagnosis that I needed to wait – for my chemo to begin, to see my doctor, for my scans, the hour I lay in the PET scan machine having my test done, for the pains in my legs to stop, for my fingers to feel less numb, for my appetite to come back. Sometimes you can’t rush the process you just have to wait – patiently. And so I sat. I thought about My Uncle Bruno, my Aunt Dora, a friend who was recently diagnosed with breast cancer and another two friends who have had their ovarian cancer recur. I felt sad and once again in church my eyes filled up. And I prayed for all of them. And I continued to wait.

I thought about my clear scan results, my future grandson, being accepted to a special cancer advocate program and the speech my son, the crew coach, gave at his crew dinner. Life can be tough- Jesus knew that but it can also be very good. So I said a prayer of thanksgiving. It was my turn. Well worth the wait! Two hours later, we quietly walked out of church.

We decided to attend the Easter Vigil Mass on Saturday night which meant spending even more time in church: two and a half hours to be exact. Not really a long time when you think about the time I was in treatment and was in bed due to fatigue. Two days per cycle, I never left my bed. Two times 15 cycles ( if you include my recurrence) makes 30 days. Those 30 days equal 720 hours. During those hours and many more the chemotherapy drugs were killing off the cancer cells. Two and a half hours celebrating the Easter Vigil was my spiritual medicine.

Happy Easter. Every Day is a Blessing!

Because of Holy Water

When Catholics know someone is ill, we can do many things. We can offer a Mass in their name. We can add their name to a parish prayer list. Or we can do what my dear friend Meredith did: We can mail the person a bottle of holy water.

My octogenarian dad has been struggling recently with a puzzling array of health problems. Meredith mailed me a bottle of holy water for him. The gesture moved me; she never even has met my father.

But when she and her family made their annual journey from Indiana to Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman, Alabama, she bought him a bottle of holy water. (pictured above) When he unwrapped it on Holy Thursday and he was moved, very moved to receive such a gesture from a stranger.

The bottle now sits now on his dresser and I told him to consider this water like a daily cologne: bless yourself every morning, saying the sign of the cross as you do.

How rich our traditions, and how comforting and powerful.

To Get To Know My Pope (Viva il Papa!)

First a confession. A confession perhaps someone who writes for a Catholic blog shouldn’t make. But truth be told, until I read Light of the World, A Conversation with Peter Seewald, I didn’t “get” our Pope.

I missed Pope John Paul II terribly, as if he were my father. I didn’t understand Benedict. And though six years passed by since he took office, I really hadn’t given him a chance.

So when a friend recommended I read this book, I thought to myself, “perhaps I can see what this man is all about.”

The book is a series of interviews by veteran journalist Peter Seewald about every imaginable topic: the state of our natural world, the clergy abuse scandal, and how this man feels about being Pope. If you, like me, had some preconceptions about the pontiff, if you considered him well, clueless about public relations and severe in his approach to life, if you missed the warm media-savvy charm of JP, please read this book.

Suspend whatever impressions of the man you might have picked up from the secular media, from other Catholics (liberal or traditional), from anyone or anything that might have led you to think one way or another about this man. Open your heart and your mind and listen. As you enjoy this Easter day, read the little excerpt here and watch the short book trailer below. Then, buy (or go to the library and check out) this book and let il Papa’s words of warmth and wisdom find a place in your heart and soothe your soul. Here is an example of what awaits you,

Seewald asks “What about the Pope? Does he still believe what he believed as a child?”

Pope Benedict XVI answers:

“I would answer in similar terms. I would say: Simplicity is truth—and truth is simple. Our problem is that we no longer see the forest for the trees; that for all our knowledge, we have lost the path to wisdom. This is also the idea behind Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, which shows how the cleverness of our age causes us, ironically, to overlook the essential, while the Little Prince, who hasn’t the faintest idea about all this cleverness, ultimately sees more and better.

“What really counts? What is authentic? What keeps us going? The key thing is to see what is simple. Why shouldn’t God be capable of letting a virgin give birth, too? Why shouldn’t Christ be able to rise from the dead? Of course, when I myself determine what is allowed to exist and what isn’t, when I define the boundaries of possibility, and no one else, then of course phenomena like these have to be excluded. It is an act of intellectual arrogance for us to declare that they are internally contradictory or absurd and, for that reason alone, impossible. 

But it is not our business to decide how many possibilities are latent in the cosmos, how many possibilities are hidden above and in it. The message of Christ and the Church puts credible knowledge about God within our reach. God wanted to enter into this world. God didn’t want us to have only a distant inkling of him through physics and mathematics. He wanted to show himself to us. And so he was able to do what the Gospels recount that he did, just as he was also able to create a new dimension of existence in the Resurrection. He was able to go beyond what Teilhard de Chardin called the biosphere and the noosphere and to institute precisely a new sphere, in which man and the world attain union with God.”

You are going to want to read the rest.