Because This Time the Joke’s on St. Peter

I just had to share this joke from reader Cathyf. Woke up, found it in my in-box, smiled five minutes. I may be the last Catholic on earth to have heard it. We converts are all crazy about Christ and his Church but we’re a little bit short on Catholic culture. But that’s OK, because then the joke’s on me, and I’ve already eaten some humble pie during the first full week in Lent. Take it away, Cathy!

You see, heaven is a large walled compound, with gates of pearl at the entrance, where St. Peter takes his post with his keys. When the newly departed arrive at those pearly gates, St. Peter looks them up in his book, and either lets them in, or sends them down the road.

So one day it is St. Pete’s day off, and he is wandering about, and he sees some folks that he is pretty sure he sent down the road — but there they are inside heaven. He doesn’t think too much of it, though. He’s not paying all that close attention to faces, and after all they do tend to all run together anyway. But he does spend the next days paying closer attention to exactly who is being let in and who is being sent down the road. And on his next day off, he sees 3 different people who were definitely sent along their way.

St. Pete decides to do some investigating. He marches out the pearly gates and down the road. Around the corner, down a little ways, around another corner, where he is brought up utterly dumbfounded by the sight. There is St. Joseph, and he is boosting people over the wall! St. Pete marches over to St. Joseph and starts haranguing him. He says that this is utterly against the rules, absolutely unacceptable, and that there will be consequences! St. Joseph doesn’t say anything. Finally St. Pete finishes up his harangue by telling St. Joseph that he will not mention this little incident to anyone as long as St. Joseph makes sure that it never happens again.

Thinking that he has dealt with this outrage very well, St. Pete then spins on his heel, marches back up around the two corners and down the road and through the pearly gates. He resumes his job, but is still being careful to remember faces and who got let in and who got sent down the road. On his next day off, again, there are the Wrong People in heaven!

So again St. Pete marches out in high dudgeon; again he comes around the corner; again St. Joseph is boosting people over the wall. This time Pete is utterly apoplectic. He rages on and on about how unacceptable, wrong, not be tolerated, Pete is going to report this straight to God, terrible things will happen, maybe even Joe will get thrown out of heaven. Around this time Pete needs to pause for a second to take a breath. At which point St. Joseph, shrugging, says, “Hey, I go—I take the wife and kid with me.”

For All the Saints: Teresa of Avila

On the trail of St. Joseph, because he is my patron and because his feast day is approaching (March 19), I stumbled across Teresa of Avila. And when I did, I sat down for a spell, and after I had sat in her presence, I didn’t want to leave. That’s what the saints will do for you—so convince you of the truth of the Christian claim that you want to spend the rest of your life at their feet.

Teresa’s devotion to St. Joseph, and so mine to her, began in 1538, when she was 25 years old. A Carmelite nun in the throes of a complete physical breakdown that she laid to heart trouble, Teresa despaired of conventional medical treatments and “decided to seek a cure from ‘heavenly doctors,’” according to biographer Shirley du Boulay:

She had Masses said for her—strictly in accordance with the church’s teaching, for she had no patience with unorthodox ceremonies—and she commended herself to someone who was to become her favorite saint, St. Joseph. Strong-willed by temperament, yet determined to be obedient, she found she could submit to the image of one to whom Christ himself was subject on earth. She attributed her improvement—it could not be called a cure, because she was at no time completely well—entirely to him and never ceased to commend him to others. She would make requests of him every year on his festival, claiming that they were always granted, even that “if my petition is in any way ill directed, he directs it aright for my greatest good.”

From then on, Teresa would always observe Joseph’s feast day with particular devotion. In her Life, she would write of St. Joseph:

I wish I could persuade everyone to be devoted to this glorious saint, for I have great experience of the blessings which he can obtain from God. I have never known anyone to be truly devoted to him and render him particular services who did not notably advance in virtue, for he gives very real help to souls who commend themselves to him. For some years now, I think, I have made some request of him every year on his festival and I have always had it granted. If my petition is in any way ill directed, he directs it aright for my greater good.

I only beg, for the love of God, that anyone who does not believe me will put what I say to the test, and he will see by experience what great advantages come from his commending himself to this glorious patriarch and having devotion to him. . . .

In her forties, Teresa began to experience visions, raptures, locutions—the mystic experiences for which she is perhaps best known—though she was one hard-boiled, down-to-earth mystic, who founded seventeen reformed Discalced (Barefoot) “Carmels” in her lifetime, working like a modern-day businesswoman on a fast track. St. Joseph sometimes appeared to her in visions. When in 1562, at age 47, she founded her first Carmel, she named it St. Joseph’s. She viewed her new reformed foundation as being like the home of the Holy Family in Nazareth, “a heaven, if one can be had on this earth.”

His Majesty earnestly commanded me to strive for this new monastery with all my powers, and He made great promises that it would be founded and that He would be highly servied in it. He said it should be called St. Joseph and that this saint would keep watch over us at one door, and our Lady at the other, that Christ would remain with us, and that it would be a star shining with great splendor.

From then on, no matter where she traveled through Spain in a covered wagon that maintained her enclosure from the world, St. Joseph’s would be Teresa’s home. St. Joseph himself was always at the ready, always nearby. In 1575, en route to founding one of her Carmels, according to du Boulay, Teresa’s party—

took the wrong turn, realized they were lost, and, at Teresa’s injunction, began to pray to St. Joseph. At once they heard a distant voice calling out that they must stop immediately, otherwise they would fall over a precipice. They obeyed the invisible command and discovered they were indeed in a perilous position, a chasm yawning beneath the wagon wheels, but what could they do? How could they turn round in the narrow path? The voice told them to go gently backward for a hundred turns of the wheels; they would come to no harm and would find the track again. It was just as the voice said.

In an essay on “The Historical Development of the Holy Family Devotion,” Joseph F. Chorpenning, OSFS, writes that Teresa’s devotion to St. Joseph is one of the key reasons that we honor him and, indeed, the Holy Family as such today. Chorpenning traces this devotion from the late Middle Ages, through Teresa’s time in the sixteenth century, right down to our times, when Pope John Paul II wrote Redemptoris Custos, his Apostolic Exhortation “on the person and mission of Saint Joseph in the life of Christ and in the Church.”

But I’ll leave that for another post. I’ll end simply with the last line from du Boulay’s biography of the Carmelite saint and the first female Doctor of the Church, Teresa of Avila:

To anyone asking for proof of the existence of God, anyone saying, “Is God there?” Teresa’s whole life offers a resounding “Yes.”

Because Parish Life Isn’t Easy

Guest post by Allison 
My husband and I, both cradle Catholics, grew up in households where one of our parents was not. Consequently, going to Mass was more or less the only way our families expressed their Catholicism; they didn’t pray family rosaries, or read the Bible together or talk about their faith journeys. And they didn’t involve themselves in the life of their parish, other than my dad, who sang in the choir from time to time.

In contrast, Greg and I have immersed ourselves in our parish life. My husband serves on the parish council, where he oversees parish communications, and he is a lector. I sing in the choir and the Chant Club and I also co-founded and coordinate a youth group. Our eldest son is an altar server and also sings in the Chant Club. Because our parish is tiny, we know our parish priest well. He is a family friend who has shared books and meals with us on many occasions.

This all sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? Well, sometimes it isn’t.

Being involved intimately in a small parish means we are witness to everyone’s foibles and failings and they get first-row seats  to ours.

Good writing means offering your readers good detail, painting a picture so they can see what you are talking about. But I’m unwilling  to provide specifics, because anyone with even a passing knowledge of the families and staff at our parish would recognize the people I am describing.

Suffice it to say that the whole human condition is on display at our parish—people who have trouble holding their tongues, people who fail to speak up even when it would be in their best interest to,  people who gossip, and people who hold grudges. I will confess here that sometimes I have fit every one of those descriptions.

And sometimes, the whole enterprise is discouraging. If we adults can’t behave ourselves in a parish,  of all places, where can we?

Recently, another thought has occurred to me: parish life is hard because life is hard. You don’t get to pick your parents and you don’t get to pick who sits next to you in a pew.

What continues to draw me to the Catholic Church is not always my fellow travelers. It is always the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Because of His presence, we don’t need a telegenic pastor or the loveliest of voices singing in the choir.  We don’t need our lectors to sound like voice-over artists or for all our parishioners to be saintly and charitable at all times.

I like the metaphor that a church is like Noah’s Ark transformed into the boat, or Barque of Peter. Yves Congar, the late French Dominican cardinal and theologian, described it this way:

We are pilgrims and passengers and members of the crew beckoned onward by what the Church calls “the universal call to holiness.” Which is to say, beckoned on by Christ and the promise of the Kingdom. What is expected of us is to respond to the call where we are, and in doing so to allow ourselves to be carried where we are to be.

I am Catholic because parish life isn’t easy. It isn’t supposed to be. We are imperfect travelers—sometimes scared, sometimes grumpy, sometimes just bone tired. We journey together on a boat, through a storm. We are holding on for our lives and praying we make it to our destination safely.

Dateline Beverly: Blogger Issues Mea Culpa!

It’s sometimes your most clever posts that get you in trouble. First there was Popeye, which has had more comments than any post yet—including several justified complaints. (OK, Popeye isn’t really Catholic, and Bluto isn’t Protestant.) But now I‘m in trouble with my priest, Father Barnes! Sheeeesh. I’m not sure the offense is confessable. You be the judge.

In my most recent post, I asked a simple question: Let’s say you could be a priest. What order would you enlist in? I had some fun with the post: I mentioned a couple of orders I was once quite interested in (Franciscans, Carthusians) and gave what I thought were amusing, off-center reasons for joining them, or not. Then I said I saw myself as a Dominican because (pushing my tongue further into my cheek) I look good in white. I read the post to Katie at dinner. She smiled and, more tellingly, did not grimace.

Then before our CL School of Community last night, I told Father Barnes about the post and the poll alongside. He asked for the list of choices in the poll, and after I had reeled it off he asked, “What, no dicocesan priest?”

My heart sank, but my mind, which can prove any point, right or wrong, had a quick answer: “It’s not an order, Father!”

He shrugged, smiled slyly, and said, “I’m just saying . . . ”

And he’s right, of course. I should have given the option to vote diocesan, but then, it’s too late now. Which leaves me uttering a meek and mild mea culpa. I tried to pick a sheepish-looking photo, but I’m not sure I do sheepish well.

I suggest that those who want to express their solidarity with Father Barnes and make a certain blogger look even more foolish than he already does could check off “Other” in the poll.

A Question of Order

TGIF! Time for us laymen and women to indulge in fantasy! Let’s say you were going to be a priest. (It’s OK, ladies, you can play along here, no foul.) Let’s say further that you were going to “enlist” in an order. Which one would you choose? Augustinian, Franciscan, Dominican, Jesuit? Benedictine, Carmelite, Cistercian? Or would you opt for what Frank calls “hard corps”—the Carthusians?

I’ll put my two cents in the offering plate and then leave it to readers to vote (poll at right) and comment (below).

In the days when I used to walk down Haight Street (or the local equivalent) humming Donovan’s “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,” there would have been no hesitation: Franciscan! What young hippie idealist wouldn’t want to wander around in sackcloth, kissing lepers and sleeping on rocks?

Not now, not at my age!

There was a time I thought I might like to be a serious monastic, and what’s more serious than the Carthusians? But then I read An Infinity of Little Hours and thought about wearing a hair shirt all day, all night, til death do us part. As Frank would say, Sheeeeeesh!

Today, while I must admit a certain admiration for the Jesuits, despite their reputation for “extreme” liberalism, I lean heavily toward the Dominicans. They are smart, and they are eloquent. I’d make a good preacher, I think, and I look great in white.

What do you say, YIMC Community?

For Your Lenten Friday Night at the Movies II

Ladies and gentlemen, this is your co-pilot once again. We have now descended to 31,000 ft. It’s way before dinner, but seeing how you have been so patient on this flight, your pilot Webster and I thought we would give you a sneak preview of our after dinner entertainment for this evening. By the way, smoked talapia is on the menu tonight, so hold your appetites until then!

This scene is the final one from tonight’s selection, Chariots of Fire, which won the Academy Award for best picture in 1981. This scene includes a rousing rendition of William Blake’s Jerusalem and features Eric Lidell winning the 400-meter sprint, against all odds.

So again, sit back and enjoy the ride and thank you for flying YIM Catholic Airlines!

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Because of His Cross

Guest post by Warren Jewell
I don’t know about you, but if a bunch of thugs nailed me to a wooden display after having beat me up, my Italian side would not be very nice in talking to them. In fact, I can’t think of any side of me that would be nice. I would avoid saying anything terrible about their moms, but all else would get free rein. However, the High Priest Himself not merely said nice things to his death squad, He pleaded for them with His Father to forgive them for their ignorance. Even Frank’s best ‘Sheesh!’ can’t cover that act of love.

What a great Guy we have in Jesus! You can hope for the same magnanimous, magnificent mercy without even asking, right? Right? Wrong! They were ignorant—we are not. His love for us is as infinite as ever, but, “they know not what they do” has no place for us. We know that we torture and destroy God made man, our own Savior, Priest of priests, Innocent of innocents, King of kings, God from God—need I go on?—as surely as we know anything.

There’s no easy way out anywhere for me. Mother Mary would cast an eye on us, me among the embarrassed group, and tell Saint John, “Keep an eye on this bunch. They need a lot of work.”

I have been blessed with open ears, and have listened; blessed with open eyes, I have seen. So, I know better about what it is I do, Who it is I am doing it to. “But – I had to do it – really!” It sounds rather empty, standing under that Cross; Mary Magdalene looking at me with a “How could you?!” look. The good thief, traditionally named Saint Dismas, would shockingly realize what he was witnessing: “You mean, Lord, that he is from among Your followers?!” Indeed, surrounded by His most beloved, and with Jesus the Christ hanging, dying, right over our heads, just where could I look?

Of wonderful mercy, I cannot have been party to the actual Crucifixion. However, every time I sin, I do stand beneath that Cross without an excuse or reason or cause. I am not ignorant. I am shamefully aware that I am guilty of sin. And His Blood flows not only as His perfect sacrifice because of my sin, but as His purifying waters to wash away my sin.

If somehow I could take away my sin, and you your sin, we would not have put Him on the Cross. We all know better: that we sin and even the best of us is putting the Lord Jesus Christ up on His Cross just too regularly. Once again, we must stand beneath Him, explain to His Mother why “my sin was more important to do” than not crucifying her Son. Looking at His tortured frame yet again is not ever going to make any of us do less than cringe all the way to the confessional.

His gift to His executioners was mercy in the face of ignorance. His gift to us and through His Church and His Word are that we need not, and more importantly cannot, be ignorant.

Faith and reason, as two essential gifts to all of us who submit our wills to believe, ride to our rescue, if we just permit God to care for and cherish us through them. We lost ignorance long ago, my friends. We gained the beloved Presence of the Lord to make the best of us, and have no doubts about that.

Now, just take a moment and bow before a crucifix and know that He is God and loves you all that much.

YIMC Book Club, “Mere Christianity,” Week 6

This week we finished up Book III, Chapters 9-12.

I’ve really been enjoying what CS Lewis has been writing thus far. Oh sure, in the early going, the book was pretty weak tea. But since week #2, Jack has been hitting on all cylinders. As a recent convert to Catholicism from the nondenominational Protestant side of the house, I’m enjoying everything he is writing here. For the most part, none of it is controversial to me. Jack hasn’t swerved on the icy roads of the opinions of the modern age. His doctrinal traction-control is in the “on” position.

Some of you reading along with us are probably in the same camp with me. Others may have dropped by the wayside with Jack because what he is writing may be painful to read. Instead of wincing, keep in mind these words St. Paul writes to his young protegé Timothy (2 Timothy 4:1-4),

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingly power: proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching. For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine but, following their own desires and insatiable curiosity, will accumulate teachers and will stop listening to the truth and will be diverted to myths.

For as Jack wrote earlier, we are living behind enemy lines. Which is why being a Christian is hard. Recently my pastor was welcoming the current class of Catechumens and Candidates, and as he and the congregation welcomed them he also warned them that as Catholic Christians, they had chosen a hard way. Jack expounds on that tough road this week as he writes about the theological virtues of Charity, Hope, and Faith. Just some quickie thoughts from me and quotes from Jack this week and then on to the discussion in the comments box. And Chapter 1 of Book 4 will be discussed next week. How does that sound?

Chapter 9, Charity

Jack quickly lets us know that this word means love, and not the modern idea of alms giving. St. Paul reminds us that the greatest of the virtues is charity. Because without love, everything else is naught. See St. Paul again in his letter to the Corinthians. Jack reminds us that love in the Christian sense isn’t a sentimental emotion. Do not confuse eros or romantic love with caritas or brotherly love. And remember that sticky wicket of loving our neighbor? Yeah, that slam-dunk of easy Christian living? Jack reminds us,

Do not waste time bothering whether you “love” your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.

Stop theorizing about it. Need help? I know I do, and later Jack shows us where to find the strength. For now he shows a few examples of charity, that resonated with me. First this,

The worldly man treats certain people kindly because he “likes” them: the Christian, trying to treat every one kindly, finds himself liking more and more people as he goes on-including people he could not even have imagined himself liking at the beginning.

You know, this has been my experience since I have become a Catholic. It has been an amazing grace to me actually. Think of the unlikely pairing of Webster Bull, lapsed peacenick, and myself, the uber-Marine. Who would have thought it possible? Even St. Paul was losing friends because of the faith, but he gained them as well. See his letter to Timothy again for an example,

Try to join me soon,for Demas, enamored of the present world, deserted me and went to Thessalonica, Crescens to Galatia,and Titus to Dalmatia. Luke is the only one with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is helpful to me in the ministry. I have sent Tychicus to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak I left with Carpus in Troas, the papyrus rolls, and especially the parchments. Alexander the coppersmith did me a great deal of harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds. You too be on guard against him, for he has strongly resisted our preaching. At my first defense no one appeared on my behalf, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them!

So much for Easy Street. But note how St. Paul still hopes that those who deserted him will be saved. That is Christian love for you. Next, my inner finance guy enjoyed this quote,

Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance. The smallest good act today is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of.

Well said, Jack! On to the next chapter.

Chapter 10, Hope

A good discussion of how Christians are called to serve in the world today. Naysayers may suggest that Christians are shallow thinkers who leave it all to God. Jack attempts to enlighten them, but the same ridiculous ideas are always in play and, frankly, always have been. Jack notes,

If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.

There was a short time when Christians did sort of throw up their hands and leave it all to God. We’ll see the effects of that in our next YIMC Book Club selection, The Great Heresies by Hillaire Belloc. Jack really hammers on this later, in Chapter 12. Suffice it to say now that much good has come from Christians working in the world while being faithful as well.

Jack then gives us an idea of the three ways to make sense of the world,

1. The Fool’s Way
2. The Disillusioned Sensible Man
3. The Christian Man—The Christian says, “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

This brings to mind the behind enemy lines analogy and the characterization of the life of a Christian as The Sojourner—our existence as aliens, scattered among unbelievers, far from our true country.

Jack counsels a very British stiff upper lip regarding our reputation in this world,

There is no need to be worried by facetious people who try to make the Christian hope of “Heaven” ridiculous by saying they do not want “to spend eternity playing harps.” The answer to such people is that if they cannot understand books written for grown-ups, they should not talk about them.

Imagine if you will, present-day skeptic celebrity Bill Maher attempting to have a match on these points with Jack Lewis. Jack by a knock-out. Which is why Bill Maher didn’t interview anyone with any real substance in his anti-religion movie Religulous. Let’s move on to the back-to-back chapters on faith that close out this week’s readings.

Chapter 11, Faith

In fact, I was assuming that the human mind is completely ruled by reason. But that is not so. Yeah, we’re humans Jack, not Vulcans. Sheesh! Jack talks about two kinds of faith and how faith as a bedrock foundation is rational but still difficult. Which reminds me of the idea that often we focus on the noise while ignoring the signal which I wrote about here. He goes on to remind us of this,

Now Faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods. For moods will change, whatever view your reason takes…Consequently one must train the habit of Faith…That is why daily prayers and religious reading and church going are necessary parts of the Christian life.

Sounds like as good a reason as any to consider your spiritual reading and prayer routines. Sort of like Marines and the daily seven, which may have morphed into the daily dozen nowadays. Routine physical exercises that can be done daily in 15 minutes or so, you know, to keep the body in shape. Which takes a measure of willpower to practice. And then this,

You may remember I said that the first step towards humility was to realise that one is proud. I want to add now that the next step is to make some serious attempt to practise the Christian virtues. A week is not enough. No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good. A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is.

Jack than crashes fantasyland by proclaiming that in the history of mankind, Christ was the the only complete realist. As we come to realize that this road is tough, we also realize that we owe everything, absolutely everything to God.

If you devoted every moment of your whole life exclusively to His service you could not give Him anything that was not in a sense His own already…When a man has made these two discoveries God can really get to work. It is after this that real life begins. The man is awake now. We can now go on to talk of Faith in the second sense.

Chapter 12, Faith

I get the impression that Jack considered this second chapter on faith as optional. Because unless you’ve walked this path for a while, you may not understand the descriptions of this chapter’s account on the higher sense of faith. I’ll let Jack explain through these passages,

I said that the question of Faith in this sense arises after a man has tried his level best to practise the Christian virtues, and found that he fails, and seen that even if he could he would only be giving back to God what was already God’s own. In other words, he discovers his bankruptcy… When I say “discovered,” I mean really discovered: not simply said it parrot-fashion.

All this trying leads up to the vital moment at which you turn to God and say, “You must do this. I can’t.” It is the change from being confident about our own efforts to the state in which we despair of doing anything for ourselves and leave it to God.

I know the words “leave it to God” can be misunderstood, but they must stay for the moment. The sense in which a Christian leaves it to God is that he puts all his trust in Christ: trusts that Christ will somehow share with him the perfect human obedience which He carried out from His birth to His crucifixion: that Christ will make the man more like Himself and, in a sense, make good his deficiencies. In Christian language, He will share His “sonship” with us, will make us, like Himself, “Sons of God”: in Book IV I shall attempt to analyse the meaning of those words a little further. If you like to put it that way, Christ offers something for nothing: He even offers everything for nothing. In a sense, the whole Christian life consists in accepting that very remarkable offer.

To trust Him means, of course, trying to do all that He says… But trying in a new way, a less worried way…Not hoping to get to Heaven as a reward for your actions, but inevitably wanting to act in a certain way because a first faint gleam of Heaven is already inside you.

This idea is one that many who criticize Christianity yesterday, today, and most likely tomorrow fail to understand. That Christians behave out of love for God instead of just out of fear of damnation does not seem to have been considered by them. I have several friends who think this way. Perhaps they haven’t checked their moral balance sheets as closely as Jack and I have. And this is a conundrum,

I think all Christians would agree with me if I said that though Christianity seems at first to be all about morality, all about duties and rules and guilt and virtue, yet it leads you on, out of all that, into something beyond. One has a glimpse of a country where they do not talk of those things, except perhaps as a joke. Every one there is filled full with what we should call goodness as a mirror is filled with light But they do not call it goodness. They do not call it anything. They are not thinking of it. They are too busy looking at the source from which it comes.

And that’s all I have. I’ll meet you at the banquet table and the comment box for discussion on how this week’s chapters spoke to you. I think I’ll have some chardonnay, too.

Next week we’ll begin Book 4 with chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. I know I said we would read chapter 1 this week, but I changed my mind!

Because of Maria Esperanza Medrano Bianchini, Servant of God

Guest post by Allison 
A woman with roses that grow out of her chest. Who carries the aroma of roses, without wearing perfume. Whose hands bleed during Holy Week and who sees visions of the Virgin Mary in Venezuela. No, these are not reports from the Weekly World News. This is the story of Maria Esperanza, who died in Long Beach Island, New Jersey in 2004 and who the Church now is investigating for sainthood.

Some might dismiss such a woman, along with her followers, as kooks. Others might embrace her as a prophetess, even build their own religion around her. I am Catholic because my church treads the middle way: it keeps open the possibility of miraculous happenings while systematically investigating such claims. This is known as the canonical process. It won’t make Maria Esperanza a saint: it will confirm—or not—that she already is.

“The church takes these cases on with a lot of prudence and reason,” says my good friend and fellow parishioner Dan Finaldi, who met Maria Esperanza at healing Masses in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. “That process makes it much less likely that it can devolve into superstition or occultism.”

Dan’s own first-hand experiences with Maria Esperanza left him convinced. “She was clearly a gifted mystic,” he says, “there is no doubt about it.”

Last month, the opening of her Cause of Beatification and Canonization took place in the Cathedral of Saint Francis of Assisi in Metuchen, New Jersey. More than a thousand people attended the Mass, including Dan.

Maria Esperanza, born in a town in Monagas State, Venezuela, in 1926, became known around the world after the Blessed Mother appeared to her and 150 others at a farm named Finca Betania on March 25, 1984. Our Lady is said to have appeared to the mother of seven children under the title, “Mary, Virgin and Mother, Reconciler of all People and Nations.” After an investigation, the local bishop approved the apparition in 1987. This was the fourth such Church-approved apparition of the Blessed Mother in the 20th century.

Visions of the Blessed Mother are not the only reason the Church is investigating Maria Esperanza for sainthood. Her charisma are said to have included: stigmata, visions of the future, the gift of healing, the gift of counsel, locutions, ecstasies, levitations, the materialization of the Holy Host in her mouth, the outpouring of flower and fruit perfume, the apparition of rose petals, levitation, bilocation, transfiguration, and a unique mystical phenomenon, the spontaneous birth or outburst of a rose—at 16 different times during her life—from her chest.

Dan is a painter and a bit of a mystical thinker. In the late 1990s, drawn to attending healing masses, he went to one in Perth Amboy where Maria Esperanza was appearing. He watched after the Mass, which was crowded with more than 1,500 people, as she spoke from the ambo. During her talk, he says, she fell into an ecstasy, which interrupted her talk. After the Mass, he said, he waited in a line for three and half hours for spiritual advice. Finally, he could wait no more and went home, giving a lift to two women he had stood in line with.

As they were driving away from the church, the three of them saw a very bright light flicker on and off in the darkened rose window by the choir loft. “There was suddenly bright illumination, as if someone turned on a very bright light inside a window . . . three bright lights illuminated the choir loft. It was an unusual thing to see.” Later, driving north on the New Jersey Turnpike, Dan said he and his passengers saw a shooting star, a coincidence, he says, but an interesting end to the evening.

The second time Dan met Maria Esperanza, he was agonizing over whether to pursue a teaching career. He stood in line for three hours and finally had the chance to talk to her. “You know what it smells like when you put your face in a rose? “ Dan said. “That is what it smelled like.” The aroma would “waft and subside and waft and subside” as he spoke with her, pouring out his difficulties. He told Maria Esperanza about a strange dream—or a vision, he wasn’t sure—he had had.

“I woke up,” he said, “and saw a woman dressed in a white suit, holding a box. It was an illuminated box that was levitating. The woman said, ‘This is a gift. Our Lord Jesus wants you to have this.’ He told the woman ‘I’m afraid,’ and the vision disappeared. When he recounted this dream or vision to Maria Esperanza, she said, “You will be a teacher and you MUST trust the Lord.”

“As I processed my encounter with Maria and my strange dream,” Dan said, “I thought, The Lord is telling me in ways I can understand, that teaching is right for me, it is a gift.” Two months later, Dan landed a teaching job. And he has found great joy in teaching—and painting±ever since.

I never have been deeply drawn to the mystical side of the Catholic Church. But my thinking is, if I believe that God created the world (which I do) and sent his only Son to Earth to preach the truth and heal people (which I do) and that this Son rose from the dead and then returned to earth (which I do), it is not such a leap to believe that God could gift a human being with such charisma.

So I am grateful my Church takes seriously the possibility we might have mystics among us.

Special Thanks to Father Mario

What’s the difference between a Carmelite and a caramelite? One is devoted to prayer, the other to candy. But the two saw eye to eye this afternoon in my religious ed class, as Fr. Mario Lopez of the North Shore Carmelite Chapel graciously agreed to teach fourteen attentive ten-year-olds. Before the class I asked him if he had ever taught children. “Never,” he said.

You would have thought he had done this all his life. The kids were eating out of his hand. I think the Carmelite father originally from Los Angeles must be a born actor. He arrived in simple black shirt and trousers, with only a collar to suggest that he is a priest. His first gesture at the start of the class was to open a suitcase, pull out his vestments, and don them. It was Clark Kent and Superman, gone Catholic.

Father Mario began with the difference between diocesan priests and those belonging to an order, like the Jesuits, Franciscans, or Carmelites. He said that a diocesan priest is like a primary care physician, while an order priest is a specialist, like an eye doctor. While the specialty (charism) of the Franciscans is poverty, that of the Carmelites is prayer—or, as Fr. Mario put it, “to imitate Jesus in prayer.” He proceeded to teach the children about the history of his order and about the different kinds of prayer. Let’s have a close-up:

The Carmelites began in about 1160 AD, when some Crusaders retired to pray in caves on Mt. Carmel, a thirteen-mile range on the coast of what is now Israel. Prophets, including Elijah, had been known to frequent the area. Let’s go to the map:

The original Carmelites had a particular devotion to the Blessed Mother and originally bore the name Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mt. Carmel. They had the simplest rule of any order: poverty, chastity, obedience—and that’s it. Life was not simple on Mt. Carmel, however. In 1291 Muslims attacked, slaughtered some of the hermits, and drove out the others. The survivors returned to their home countries of Spain, Italy, Germany, France, Cyprus, and England and set up “Carmels” there.

For his next act, Father Mario said that Carmelites are like Marines. They have a dress uniform and they have battle fatigues, or work clothes. Fr. Mario then got down to work:

Work, for a Carmelite, is prayer, and the rest of the class was taken up with the different kinds and qualities of prayer. Father Mario began with a beautiful analogy. He asked the children if they liked putting their hand out the window of a car and feeling it rise in the wind. Of course, they said they did. That is prayer, he said. The hand is like the wing of a plane being lifted by an airstream. Or like ourselves in prayer, with our hearts and minds lifted up to God. Prayer is the wind that takes us there.

Father Mario finally itemized five forms of prayer: adoration, petition, praise, thanksgiving, and intercession. He called for a vote, asking which form of prayer is most important. Several girls voted for intercession, several boys for petition—which the Carmelite said is typical, girls being the compassionate ones and boys usually thinking only of their own needs!

Before he offered a closing prayer for the class, I asked a final question: “Father Mario, what is your favorite prayer?” His answer was a stunner. “My favorite prayer,” he said slowly, thoughtfully, “is the Mass. It includes all five forms of prayer.”

Before he left, the class gave Father Mario a retablo painted by Ann Burt. It was a painting of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, a Carmelite and (I didn’t know this in advance) a personal favorite of our guest teacher. In an e-mail this evening he wrote:

“Thank you, too, for the gift of the ‘retablo’ of St. Thérèse who was very instrumental in my own vocation. It’s precious because it’s a gift from you and her. I will remember you to her in my prayers.”

Thank you, Father Mario!