For All the Saints: Angela Merici, Virgin

As husband and father, I sometimes find the notion of virginity perplexing—impressive in its total commitment to Christ, but also pretty hard to fathom. St. Angela, featured in today’s Office of Readings, is listed as “Angela Merici, Virgin.” This, and the beautiful reading itself, reminded me happily of supper last night.

Katie and I were guests of the Memores Domini house in Boston’s North End. Within the larger world of Communion and Liberation, Memores Domini is a subset of lay people who have consecrated themselves to Christ by taking vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. It’s a sort of third order with ultimate commitment: These folks work in the world as PhD’s, MD’s, and the like, while living communally (sharing their financial resources) as virgins. Although they cannot perform the sacraments, they otherwise live like priests and religious, without collars or habits, invisibly to you and me, but with a profound effect on us.

I can testify to this effect. It was Katie’s birthday, and two of the guys had conspired, unbeknownst to me, to gather other Memores folks for a five-course celebration, plus two courses of wine, plus homemade cheesecake, plus pineapple flambée—the pièce de résistance, requiring all lights to be extinguished, et cetera, et cetera—everything done with a great sense of humor. The whole thing came off perfectly in the Boston Memores house, a converted rectory shared by five or six guys, all Italian by birth and brilliant by the evidence. (That’s one of the convincing things about CL: these men and women are faithful, hopeful, charitable, yes, but also, as Frank would say, dang smart.)

Memores women live in their own houses, but one of them, a lovely 28-year-old PhD candidate in medieval history from Rutgers, was a special and especially radiant guest. Like many Italians in CL, she is from Milano, home to Don Giussani until his death in 2005. St. Angela was born in 1470 in Desenzano, only about a 90-minute drive from Milano. After losing her sight, having it miraculously restored, and founding the Ursuline Sisters, St. Angela died in 1540 at Brescia, which is a bit closer to Milano. Her relics and incorrupt body are today at the Church of St. Afra in Brescia.

Excerpts from today’s reading, from the Spiritual Testament by St. Angela, are a perfect reflection of the spirit of charity Katie and I experienced last night:

Mothers and sisters most dear to me in Christ: in the first place strive with all your power and zeal to be open. With the help of God, try to receive such good counsel that, led solely by the love of God and an eagerness to save souls, you may fulfill your charge. 

Only if the responsibilities committed to you are rooted firmly in this twofold charity will they bear beneficial and saving fruit. As our Savior says: A good tree is not able to produce bad fruit.

He says: A good tree, that is, a good heart as well as a soul inflamed with charity, can do nothing but good and holy works. For this reason, Saint Augustine said: Love, and do what you will, namely, possess love and charity and then do what you will. It is as if he had said: Charity is not able to sin….

Typical of Memores Domini, the young lady from Rutgers proved to be as brilliant as she is radiant. Already a published author, she is working on her second book, about an unknown 14th-century merchant who built a spectacular fortune in international trade, then gave it all for the construction of a cathedral. From such charity, such radiance, brilliant things arise.

Because It’s OK for Catholics to Laugh III

This past weekend my wife and I took in a show, ’Til Death Do Us Part, Late Nite Catechism 3.  It was very enjoyable and we had quite a few hearty laughs together.

I didn’t attend Catholic schools, though my wife did up until the fifth grade. But I could still appreciate the humor, especially after having been married for 20 years! Sister teaches this class and the audience are the students, so be prepared for participation. She oddly seemed a lot like one of my Drill Instructors at Parris Island, making people get “on your feet!” and calling us “Soldiers for Christ.”

At least two parish priests were in the audience with us, and it was an ecumenical crowd.  The performance in my neck of the woods was for the benefit of a local chapter of The Ulster ProjectA very fun show.  Take a look at the clip below.

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Thanks Only to the Priesthood

I heard something chilling today. In the Archdiocese of Boston, there are roughly 250 parishes, with something closer to 300 priests serving them. But taking into account expected retirements and the number of men currently enrolled in seminary, ten years from now there will be no more than 175 priests to serve those parishes.

Although some, including one reader who has drawn plenty of comments, may have had no meaningful personal contact with priests or religious in their Catholic lives, without priests our Church is unthinkable. In this Year for Priests, we need to storm the gates of heaven for increased vocations—from our parishes and from our families.

Because of Truth in Advertising

I once entertained the idea that I would prove Catholicism wrong. I would convince my wife, through the overwhelming historical evidence I was so sure to find, and then we would start shopping for a non-Catholic church to join. Ironically, many of our readers find themselves in a similar situation: shopping for a spiritual home. The idea stopped me cold.

Recently I wrote a post about decision making. One of the key problems that anyone facing a decision has to grapple with is search costs. If you tend to be a maximizer or optimizer, you agonize over decisions. You search high and low for every shred of information about a product, or service, in the hope that you will land upon the optimal choice that will deliver happiness etc. In your quest to know everything (as a maximizer, you need complete information), your search costs are high, gargantuan.

The idea of searching for the one best church among a multitude of denominations was daunting, to say the least. I saw it as an exercise with about as much spirituality as searching for the right country club. I want to go where I feel welcome, and where I am comfortable. I want to go to church with people like me. So where to begin? The phone book? No, you start satisficing by limiting your search costs. You seek referrals and the opinions of others.

I have an idea! Why not go to the church that we helped build while I was a child? Surely my Mom (who lives in my hometown too) still goes there. But no luck: she had moved on, as many of your family members may have too.

Then why not try to decide why Mom chose to become a Presbyterian instead of remaining a non-denominational Christian, and go to church with her? Or maybe keep going to the Catholic Church with my wife and kids while I pondered further. Inertia is another side-effect of monumental search costs. I told myself I would use this inertia to prove that Catholicism was in error! Or not, as it turns out in my case.

“Sandy C” sent this comment the other day on Webster’s post sharing, which shared a comment from our dear reader Mujerlatina. Here’s what Sandy wrote:

Mujerlatina’s story actually gives me great comfort because of her statement “The mysticism, the Real Presence, the devotions and popular piety all continue to call me ‘home.’” As an former Evangelical hurt by a string of pastors who thought the church was “all about them”, I find great solace in thinking the Catholic Church is what is says it is. It IS the Real Presence. It is bigger than its historical excesses before the Reformation, the recent abuse scandals involving American priests, criticism over Vatican II and the “watered down” liturgy, any one priest and any one Pope. Too many Evangelical churches I’ve known revolve around the pastor and when the pastor moves on (by choice, retirement, scandal, or whatever), the church changes so as to be unrecognizable. I need more. I need the promises of Christ that “I will never leave you,” and “I will not leave you without a Comforter” and “the gates of hell will not prevail against it (the Church).

I agree with these sentiments. As a guy who sat in the pews with my cradle Catholic wife for 18 years before I heeded “the call,” I was unaffected by the priesthood too. Priests came, and went, like good soldiers for Christ. The congregations always endured. Was I unaffected? My wife was not overbearing about her faith. If anyone was overbearing about faith, it was me.

I was well on my way to becoming a Pharisee—sure that I knew everything that I needed to know about being a Christian. In fact, I found out that I was the Prodigal Son’s older brother and that the Church is not “all about me.” It is not about being comfortable, but about being loved. As I wrote in a post on courage a few days ago, look at the Catholic Church and what she believes in. Is “to be popular, to be comfortable” one of her trademarks? No, the Cross is her trademark.

In the readings for today, St. Paul exhorts Timothy:

For this reason, I remind you to stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands.For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control. So do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord,nor of me, a prisoner for his sake;but bear your share of hardship for the Gospel with the strength that comes from God. (2 Timothy 1:6-8)

This isn’t the newfangled “prosperity gospel” that has become popular of late. This is the hard road, the Sermon on the Mount. I find strength and solace as I travel this path and am thankful for the many graces the Sacraments provide to succor the flock as we follow our Shepherd down this rough path.

In today’s Office of Readings, St John Chrysostom exhorts us to remember that St. Paul, great as he was, was human like us:

Are you surprised at my saying that if you have Paul’s merits, you will share that same reward? Then listen to Paul himself: “I have fought the good fight, I have run the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth a crown of justice awaits me, and the Lord, who is a just judge, will give it to me on that day – and not to me alone, but to those who desire his coming.” You see how he calls all to share the same glory?

Now, since the same crown of glory is offered to all, let us eagerly strive to become worthy of these promised blessings. In thinking of Paul we should not consider only his noble and lofty virtues or the strong and ready will that disposed him for such great graces. We should also realise that he shares our nature in every respect. If we do, then even what is very difficult will seem to us easy and light; we shall work hard during the short time we have on earth and someday we shall wear the incorruptible, immortal crown. This we shall do by the grace and mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom all glory and power belongs now and always through endless ages. Amen.

I thank God that I recognized the call in time.

For Minor Miracles III (a)

It’s time for me to write about this blog and how it started and how it has continued. I have written on two previous occasions about “minor miracles,” one involving my father’s final days and one involving my beloved bride. (There are several more Katie mm’s I could recount, and I probably will before my blogging days are done.)
I was goaded into this post by Mary P., whose second comment on my St. Paul post of yesterday was too provocative to pass up.

In her first comment Mary began with St. Paul: It’s not like he got a book of instructions. . . . How do those of us waiting for that lightning strike figure out if something is God’s will? I’ve taken it to mean if you’re drawn to something, such as a particular action, but that action looks really challenging, but you can’t seem to get it off your mind, then God is probably calling you to do it. If you’re wrong, then God will make it pretty clear. 

In her second comment Mary wrote about this blog: You thought or heard or dreamed or SOMETHING and that started it. Your intention was different than what it is now. That doesn’t mean you didn’t or aren’t doing what God wanted/wants you to do, just because you thought you were doing it for another reason! Am I right that you hesitated when you realize the blog was morphing? Please understand I’m not picking on you, but you are the obvious example. The blog grew, and you began to see that it was having an effect on people that you never conceived when you started. Then Frank came onboard (did you think that was an accident? Not me!), and look at it now!

So, the bolt of lightning . . . or maybe . . .

Chapter 1 — The Breeze
I was in Maine with Katie in August, pretty much as you see me in the picture at the top of this post, a picture Katie took from her kayak. Yeah—relaxed, happy, open.

I had been thinking about starting a blog for my memoirs business. No techie myself, I had heard from a friend how easy it is to start a blog. So one day I logged on to and started Memoirs Unlimited, the blog. Clickers will find that there are all of 5 posts at that site, versus 280-some-odd posts and counting at YIM Catholic. Does that tell you something?

Back in the spring, I had been in touch with an old college friend, who I wrote about here. He’s #5 and #13 on the list. My friend asked me why I had converted and I had no ready answer. But being a writer I promised him I would write him some short essays about my conversion experience. Which I did, for his eyes only.

Two posts into my Memoirs Unlimited blog, the lightning bolt hit, although it was more like a gentle breeze from the open window of the bedroom where I set up my writing shop when we are in Maine. The breeze said, “That’s not what you want to do. You want to write about your conversion experience. And you’ve already written the first three posts, including one about the book that started it all, by Fr. James Martin.”

Now, here’s the beauty part. That thought made me pretty happy, so I logged onto Blogger and hit the start-new-blog button. As before, with Memoirs Unlimited, Blogger asked me what I wanted to name my blog, which would establish the unique URL. I stared at the screen, then typed: Catholic Convert. Blogger informed me that Catholic Convert was already taken, dummy. I typed something else equally generic, like New Catholic. That was already taken too, stupid. I typed two or three more ideas, was rejected each time, then stopped for a moment: What do I want to write about? I want to write about why I am a Catholic. . . . Well, obviously we have to come up with something oddball to beat this overloaded system. Then I thought: Acronym. Or maybe it was: Rebus. Or maybe there was no thought at all. I typed: YIMCatholic. Blogger dinged at me: Congratulations! You have a blog! Begin entering content!

Within minutes, the consequences of this chain of events hit me: If the title is “Why I Am Catholic,” every post will have to be an answer of sorts. That hit me like inspiration. Not my inspiration, I can promise you that. I did not think through the consequences before choosing the blog title. The consequences were there.

Chapter 2 —The Lightning Bolt
That was August 17, 2009. Over the first ten days, I posted eight times, including three of the essays I had written for my friend. I was very happy, almost giddy, writing some of these posts, but I thought I was running dry. Then, on the evening of the tenth day, while back home in Massachusetts for some business meetings, I received this e-mail:

Dear Mr. Bull,
Many thanks for your beautiful post,
which a friend passed along to me.
I’m delighted that my book helped
you so much, and so happy that the saints
have been your patrons and companions
in your journey into the church.
Jim Martin, SJ

I was flabbergasted. I had no idea anyone was even reading YIM Catholic. Honestly, I had next to no ambition about it, except to send each post to Katie, our daughters, Father Barnes, and three friends in the parish, Ferde, Carol, and Ellen. I thought that was my readership, give or take a lonely late-night Web surfer in Altoona.

If there was any lightning bolt in this story, that was it, the e-mail from Fr. Jim in New York. I called Katie in Maine the following morning and gasped. She gasped back.

Chapter 3 — The Ego Trip
Chapter 4 — The Crisis of Faith
Chapter 5 — The Crazy Marine from the Old South Who May Be An Angel Or Something
Chapter 6 — Building a Community

To be continued . . .

Because of a Priest . . . or Not

A regular reader of YIM Catholic goes by the handle of Mujerlatina. Today she sent us an e-mail that I found pretty challenging. It begins generously with a capsule autobiography of her own spiritual life. Then it closes with a kicker. It’s worth a look and a comment.
Mujerlatina writes:

“Here’s a brief synopsis of my convoluted journey in the Catholic Church: born Catholic, raised Catholic, receieved the sacraments, product of horrible CCD program, grandmother was an influential person of popular piety (illiterate), Newman Center at Duke University and daily Mass with many Catholic friends, silent retreats yearly with Duke friends tagging along, devotion to the Rosary, devotion to St. Martin de Porres, participation in all-black Roman Catholic Gospel choir for eight years, missionary doctor in the Carribbean and Latin America, desert years angry at the Catholic Hierarchy and its political ‘mafia,’ more desert years, children and home devotions and Catholic schools, weekly mass, Eucharistic Devotion, prayer, study alone, solo spiritual journey.

“I’ve tried to ‘leave’ the church many times, but have found that it is in the ‘fabric of my being.’ The mysticism, the Real Presence, the devotions and popular piety all continue to call me ‘home.’ Honestly, I must say that my on-going formation as a Catholic has nothing to do with any clergy person! No priest, sister, nun or other consecrated layperson has had ANY impact on my spiritual journey. Is that a problem?? Is that ironic?? We are constantly being called to ‘pray for vocations,’ but while I do comply, I am often in wonderment that the clergy/consecrated laypersons I actually have met are ‘zero’ in my walk as a Catholic.

“Here’s my question: What role do these ‘people of the cloth’ play for most of the YIMC readers out there? I read that ‘Fr. Barnes’ and others are so impactful on some folks—but I suspect that there are a lot of people like me who, by the grace of God, cling onto the Catholic ‘ship’ without any spiritual advisor/priest, etc.

“What say you all?”

Though I Wasn’t Knocked Off My Horse

I used to think it would be just like St. Paul, my life changing once and for all. I still remember the feeling when I was in high school and college and even afterward. It would be like falling in love, or being knocked off a horse: All of a sudden I would be on the ground looking up. It would be pretty much the way Caravaggio imagined it (left).

 I have been thinking about the so-called “call,” the lightning bolt from the blue, since reader Michael Halbrook commented on it Friday, asking “How do you finally discern the call?” I responded with a post on Saturday, and a bushel of more comments came in. Frank offered his own superb thoughts about it yesterday. And now I wake up Monday morning to find the Conversion of St. Paul on my calendar and yours.

I recognize late in life that my own adolescent imaginings of a life-changing vision or wake-up call were just that, adolescent imaginings. Just like the dream of falling in love. And now that I put it that way, I realize that for myself, there was never a voice, not yet anyway (I’m still keeping my ears open), but there was a falling in love. Maybe that’s what happened to St. Paul, only Carvaggio just had a heightened sense of drama. He did paint a lover’s surrender, didn’t he?

But then falling in love is just like St. Paul’s falling off his horse, isn’t it? Because what I never realized when I pined for “love” was how hard it can be to stay in love, what a commitment the vow of marriage is. As someone said yesterday—was it Father Barnes in his homily?—there are hundreds of magazine articles about where to buy the best wedding cake, but no simple how-to manual for keeping a marriage sacred and intact.

Just so St. Paul. We think of his conversion, and for myself, I envy him. Being called by Christ? And then going on to write the book on Christianity for the Gentiles? As a writer and Catholic blogger, I can only hope!!

But the travel, the smelly companions, the martyrdom? I don’t envy that. When I was a child we had a Siamese cat named Nero. That’s as close as I want to get to Rome in the AD 60s.

Before we require God to “call” us, I think we should meditate long and hard on how willing we are to answer the call. St. Paul answered, and we are still listening.

Because I Yearn (Music for Mondays)

As each week goes by, I accumulate clips of music to post on Mondays. I checked last night and found only one clip stored since last Monday. But what a clip. What a coincidence. Yesterday in choir, we began practicing a piece for Lent, “Sicut Cervus Desiderat” by Palestrina (left). That’s the music I set aside.

Here the piece is performed by the Westminster Cathedral Choir. The text is from Psalm 42: “Like the deer that years for running streams, so my soul is yearning for you, my God. My soul is thirsting for God, the God of my life; when can I enter and see the face of God? . . . ”

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For the Love of St. Joseph I

March 19, 2008, was a decisive day for me. Easter Vigil was three days away, as was my reception into the Catholic Church. Throughout RCIA, I had planned to take Thomas More as my confirmation name, but I came into Mass that morning and discovered that it was the Feast of St. Joseph. That did it. St. Joseph took me by surprise.
I had been utterly clueless about him until that morning of March 19. In fact, I had even thought that the statue at the head of the right aisle in our church, which illustrates this post, was of St. Peter. I think it was Ferde who set me straight about that, as he has set me straight about many things Catholic.

I decided to take Joseph as my confirmation name because I realized that St. Joseph represents something more important to me than all of the worldly accomplishments or moral courage of Thomas More; Joseph represents the good father. For me, that is the highest standard, a bar that sometimes looks way over my head, although my own father seemed to glide over it effortlessly.

St. Joseph became my patron, and when my father got sick and died over the ensuing six months, I spent many minutes kneeling before this statue and another one in the Catholic Church in my parents’ town. I found myself in front of St. Joseph again this morning, under less dramatic but still compelling circumstances. Other than Mary, Joseph is the only saint I have prayed to, but I do pray to him. I believe that my prayers are heard.

St. Joseph’s Day is still nearly two months away, but I’d like to dedicate a few posts to him between now and then. Yesterday morning in men’s group, a non-parishioner and non-Catholic, Kirk Kvistad, gave a beautiful presentation of his own prayer-song compositions. I wish I could share some of these with you via MP3, but they’re not available yet.

However, Kirk started off the meeting with a prayer to St. Joseph that I had not seen before, and I can share that:

Oh, St. Joseph, whose protection is so great, so strong, so prompt before the throne of God. I confide in you all my interests and desires. Oh, St. Joseph, do assist me by your powerful intercession, and obtain for me from your divine Son all spiritual blessings, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. So that, having engaged here below your heavenly power, I may offer my thanksgiving and homage to the most loving of Fathers.

Oh, St. Joseph, I never weary of contemplating you, and Jesus asleep in your arms; I dare not approach while He reposes near your heart. Press Him in my name and kiss His fine head for me and ask him to return the Kiss when I draw my dying breath. St. Joseph, Patron of departing souls—Pray for me.

According to a footnote Kirk passed along, “This prayer was found in the fiftieth year of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. In 1505, it was sent from the Pope to Emperor Charles when he was going into battle. Whoever shall read this prayer or hear it or keep it about themselves, shall never die a sudden death, or be drowned, nor shall poison take effect on them; neither shall they fall into the hands of the enemy, or be burned in any fire, or be overpowered in battle.”

I do not know on what authority, if any, this footnote was written. But I do not disbelieve it.

Because of the Latin Mass . . . or Not

Our poll results are in, and interesting. If the Latin Mass were available, 23 percent of you said you would always attend the Mass in Latin. Always.

Admittedly, this is not a random sample, but we did receive over 200 votes and throughout the week of voting, this percentage stayed above 20 percent. Which means that one out of five voting readers of this blog would prefer to attend only Latin Masses.

The obvious follow-up question is, Who are you? And to your number we might add an additional 46 percent who said they would sometimes attend the Latin Mass. That means that nearly 70 percent would like to have the Latin Mass available at least some of the time.

Why? Why do you want the Latin Mass, at least some of the time? And while we’re at it, let’s add an additional 14 percent who said they don’t care what language the Mass is in. Which leaves only 18 percent of those responding who were adamant about keeping the Mass in English.

What is the appeal of the Latin Mass? This is a particularly interesting question for me, since as a convert I have never known anything but the English Mass.

I told Father Barnes that I thought interest in the Latin Mass would wane as Baby Boomers and their parents pass on. (They are the only generations who remember the period before Vatican II.) Father Barnes said he thought just the opposite; he sees an interest in the Latin Mass among the young.

What do you think? Why does the Latin Mass appeal to you? As a member of what generation? I’d like to know because—two years a convert—I have never attended a Mass in Latin! The English Mass is the only Mass I know.