Because of the Feast Day of the Holy Family

For the past ten days, I have been on vacation visiting friends and family in Southern California—immersed in domestic life in a manner more up close and personal than usual. Sometimes I am at a loss to understand what my children are doing and where they are coming from. But I don’t leave them wondering where my wife and I are coming from.
That is why I am glad this is the Feast Day of the Holy Family. I could use some uplifting words on the vocation of parenting right about now, and I’m sure my wife could too! And I look forward to my children hearing these words as well.
Following our successful visit to the Mission of San Juan Capistrano and playing in the waves and watching the sun set at Doheney State Beach, times got a bit rocky with my children. As I wrote here, my kids (14 in a few days, 10, and 8) are “in the know” regarding Santa Claus. As Christmas Day rapidly approached, there were a number of less than kind remarks regarding the paucity of gifts sitting under the tree at grandma & grandpa’s house.
Forget about the logistics of carting presents from Tennessee to Southern California, or back for that matter. My wife and I gave plenty of advance notice that the cost of this trip would be steep in a tough economy, but that mattered little to the 13-and-under crowd. Sure, buying gifts for others upon arrival would be good, but “What about us” is what my children were saying between the lines.
Which makes the Holy Family story that much more needed for me and my family this year. The antiphon to the Invitatory Psalm intonesLet us worship Christ, the Son of God, who made himself obedient to Mary and to Joseph.Consider the antiphon while also considering that Jesus is God. . . . He [God] obeyed the two human beings entrusted with his care for close to thirty years before he “left the nest.” That is the message that our children need to hear today—not just from me and my wife, but from the Church. Madison Avenue and network television aren’t sending this message, and I’m pretty sure that the government botches the message too.

The next line from the LOTH that struck me is Luke 2:41, which reads,
Each year the parents of Jesus went to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover.This indicates that the Holy Family were practicing their faith regularly, not sporadically. The lives of the Holy Family revolved around worshiping God, and that is the model for us to emulate too: Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness . ..Flash back to last evening when I informed my eldest son that I would be waking him up early in the morning so that we could go to Mass (0700) before heading off to day 1 of a four-day baseball camp (0900 = show time) Merry Christmas, kiddo! Was his reaction angelic beatitude? More like Sturm und Drang. It was definitely an example of amour-propre in action.

But despite the sound and the fury of my eldest, I find comfort in the fact that Mary and Joseph lived their faith in a manner that is the very model of this verse from Deuteronomy 6:5,

Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength.

This commandment (note the word shall and not may in the verse) gives me the strength to ignore the whining, grumbling, and complaining of my children while staying focused on Commander’s Intent (see verse above). The Church understands this commandment because it makes sure there are ample opportunities for the rank and file like me to keep the Sabbath Holy—masses beginning on Saturday evenings and running through Sunday. Sounds like Semper Fidelis in action.

I find comfort in knowing that,

The boy grew in wisdom and in stature and the grace of God was with him.

That is my prayer for my children, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Though Christian churches of every flavor celebrate the importance of parenting, this is another example of an idea coming full circle, with completeness and amazing grace, within the Catholic Church when it marks a Feast Day celebrating the importance of family and the vocations of both parents and children.

The Short Reading from Deuteronomy 5:16 from today’s LOTH is right on the mark again:

Honor you father and mother, as the Lord God has commanded you, so that you may have long life and may prosper in the land that the Lord your God gives to you.

Amen, and thanks be to God!

Because the Real Santa Story is Amazing Enough

I’ve told my children that there is no Santa Claus. I make no apologies about that either. My reason? It takes away from the story of the actual miracle man who is Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker.

As I’ve stated before, I’m a newcomer to Catholicism. However, I was baptized when I was ten years old and have been a Christian for (do the math) thirty-six years. So I’m not exactly a newcomer to Christianity.

And I truly believe in the Spirit of Christmas. But I never really knew the true story of Saint Nicholas until I went looking for it. I had no idea that he is commemorated on December 6, the day of his death in 347 A.D.

This guy is amazing! And yet there isn’t much really known about him. We do know that he was the Bishop of Myra in the fourth century. Myra is no longer around, having been superseded by a new city called Demre in the Anatalya Province in Turkey. Here he is in a painting entitled St. Nicholas Saves Three Innocents From Death. The painting is hanging in the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. (Note, it is St. Petersburg again, and no longer Leningrad.)

So I have sat all three of my children down (ages 13, 10, and 8) and spilled the beans on Madison Avenue’s version of Santa Claus and the unlimited wish-fulfillment powers of same. (Hey, personally, I love that guy too.) Now, my 13-year-old has known the truth since he was 8. My daughter started getting concerned when she was about 8 and couldn’t see ash footprints or any other convincing evidence of his visit, and my youngest is 8 now so . . . I did what had to be done. I told them the truth.

This has caused a bit of a dust-up within our extended family, and I understand why. You can’t convince kids aged 13, 10, and 8 to continue telling a fiction about Santa Claus to their friends. Well, maybe the 13-year-old, but the 8-year-old will sink the party pronto. This is like a state secret that “need to know” will not keep safe. And that is the concern of certain relatives, which my wife and I fully understand.

But that doesn’t do St. Nicholas justice, nor Our Lord and Savior whom he serves. So if your child comes home from school one day with the idea that Santa isn’t real? Blame my kids. Or tell yours the truth and donate an unwrapped new toy to Toys for Tots.

Semper Fidelis

For All the Saints

This is the post that launched the good ship YIMCatholic into the open sea of the Catholic blogosphere  one year ago yesterday. (August 17, 2009). As you can see, it garnered all of three comments, the first of which didn’t show up until three weeks later. So,  from that shaky beginning, how do you explain the following?  One year,  645 posts, two partners, and 186,600  blog views later, YIMCatholic has managed to make it one lap around the track. Whew—Talk about a long lap!

I want to thank all of the readers, Google followers, Facebook fans, Twitter followers, etc., and friends in the world of Catholic blogs, who have taken a few moments out of their precious time every day (or so) to stop by this space. I also would like to thank the many friends we have made along the way. They have helped to build this community, and bring it to where it is today. Kevin Knight of New Advent, Elizabeth Scalia, aka“the Anchoress”, Deacon Greg Kandra of The Deacons Bench, Julie D. at Happy Catholic, and the many, many others (see blogroll in sidebar!) that have shared this journey with Frank, Allison and me; they have helped present our work to others so that we three could share our experiences of being Catholic with other Catholics, those in discernment, and those who just wonder why we continue to reflect on the most compelling question of all: Why I am Catholic?

Here’s to hoping, and praying, that we will celebrate many more anniversaries for YIMCatholic into the future! Now, dear readers, to the post that started it all…

When I was in fourth grade at The Blake School in Hopkins, Minnesota, I met my first Catholic. He was a boy in my class, who invited me over to his house one day. I don’t remember a crucifix or a Madonna; I don’t remember the term catechism or CCD being mentioned; I don’t even remember my friend’s name or what he looked like. All I remember is Butler’s Lives of the Saints, on the bookshelf above his head.

I understood, perhaps from a comment that he made, perhaps by noticing Butler, that my fourth-grade buddy, or at least someone in his family, knew about the saints and I didn’t. This gave me a sense of loss, the awareness that something was missing from my life. I know I didn’t envy his being Catholic. John Kennedy ran against Richard Nixon for president in my fourth-grade year, and I distinctly remember declaring to someone, “I would never vote for a Catholic!”

Catholic was strange, alien, suspect in my Midwestern, Protestant world. Forty-seven years later, when I told my father that I was converting to Catholicism, his first reaction was, “My mother would roll over in her grave.” Maybe that’s where the prejudice came from: his Methodist parents, although he himself never showed any anti-Catholic prejudice and was beamingly proud of my conversion. Yet despite the bias of my upbringing, I knew, even at age nine, that the saints were something else again.

We attended a Congregational church in our community outside Minneapolis. It was a beautiful white building with nothing on the walls except high, clear windows that let the Sunday morning light pour in. I remember no stained glass, no Stations of the Cross, no iconography whatsoever except for a naked cross at the head of the nave. Nothing spoke of the saints.

In Connecticut, where we moved when I was ten, my parents scouted for a church and ended at an Episcopalian congregation in the rolling countryside north of town. Here the walls were stone and the light streamed in from one side only, through large, sliding glass doors that overlooked an upscale garden. As I recall, there was stained glass above the altar, but no saints anywhere to be found

In Connecticut there was one intriguing set of symbols that I did not remember from our church in Minnesota. When I was twelve, I took confirmation classes, which qualified me to kneel at the sanctuary rail and take communion one Sunday a month—the statutory Episcopal limit, it seemed. Along the rail, there were cushions for kneeling that had been slip-cased in needlepoint by some industrious members of the altar guild. From left to right, against a blue knit background, were the traditional symbols of the twelve Apostles: keys for Peter, an X-shaped cross or saltire for Andrew, a carpenter’s square for St. Thomas, the gruesome saw with which St. James the Less was martyred, and so on. I must have asked about these symbols, and it was probably my mother who gave me the answer. She is knowledgeable about cultural history, and it was her mother, not my father’s, who would rattle teacups around Lake Minnetonka in Minnesota by converting to Catholicism after my grandfather died, when I was about twenty-five.

The symbols of the Apostles were like Butler to me: clues to hidden treasure, hints that behind the spare Protestant storyline of Nativity, Crucifixion, and Resurrection, there was a secret language that filled in the gaps, enlarging the simplistic narrative into an epic of adventure and glory. I was in my twenties before I understood that this epic was Catholic.

By that time, I had wandered, alternately on fire and lukewarm, through several years of wishing to live right. In this there was a certain amount of adolescent cluelessness, and in the psycholingo popular at the time, I thought I was experiencing an identity crisis. But my late adolescence was driven by something more: a search for spiritual exemplars and ways of living like them. If I had remained a churchgoer after leaving Greenwich for boarding school in tenth grade, I might have found my way to the saints much sooner. But in the everything-overboard mentality of those Vietnam War years, I probably would not have been satisfied with anything familiar. 

There was a Catholic parish in our neighborhood, St. Sulpice, where we eavesdropped on the mass in French. Around the corner from St. Sulpice was a Catholic bookstore, where I picked up a copy of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola in French. I read it then and still have it today on my bookshelf. En route to Madrid we stopped at Lourdes, where I was entranced by the story of St. Bernadette and a candlelit procession of thousands chanting the Hail Mary in three languages alternately. In Rome, St. Peter’s was our first and last destination, while Assisi was an Italian side trip that we made more than once. Here in a church basement I stared in stunned silence at the intact body of St. Francis’s spiritual sister, St. Clare, covered only with a gauzy shroud. Every feature was clearly discernible beneath the veil eight centuries after her death. I almost thought I saw the gauze rise and fall with her breath

St. Francis was the saint who hit me over the head first, especially in Nikos Kazantzakis’s fictionalized biography and later in Franco Zeffirelli’s film, Brother Son, Sister Moon, in which Francis and Clare are flower children loping through sun-honeyed fields to the strains of English folk minstrel Donovan. Over the next thirty years, as my unchurched life rolled on, other saints grabbed my attention. Vita Sackville West’s biography of Joan of Arc was a thrilling discovery; I was astonished that Joan is no legend. The facts of her miraculous life are known in minute detail thanks to exhaustive testimony recorded at her several trials. When was it I realized that the central figure in the film that had hypnotized me since the mid-1960s was himself a saint, Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons? As time went on, I saw that film fifteen or twenty times, in the cinema, in syndicated TV rerun, on video, on DVD.

For about a month in the mid-1990s, I attended daily mass at the Catholic church in our town. I sat through the liturgy without taking communion until one day I stood with the other parishioners, approached the priest bearing a chalice, and heard him say, “The Body of Christ.” Not knowing what to respond, I said nothing, held my hands before me as I had in the Episcopal Church, received the Host, and consumed it. I was immediately ashamed. When I got home, I asked my wife Katie, born a Catholic, what one is supposed to say when the priest says, “The Body of Christ.” She told me, “Amen.” At that moment, I realized that I would have to stop attending mass until I was ready to become a Catholic. I was an impostor before God.

I never thought about returning to daily mass for the next ten or twelve years. Then one Friday night, when Katie was out with girlfriends, I ate in a restaurant, had one drink too many, and found myself in a Borders bookstore. I went directly to the two-for-one table, thinking that I might find a birthday present for a friend whose birthday was coming up. The next moment I was in front of the book that changed my life. What was it about the book that I noticed first? The cover? A striking painting of ten men and women standing side by side with their hands posed prayerfully in front of them, a multiracial gathering, including one bearded fellow who held an upside-down cross in front of him. No, not the cover.The author? James Martin, SJ. I knew that meant Society of Jesus, Jesuit.

No, what grabbed me was the title, My Life with the Saints. Francis: the rich boy turned mendicant, the holy fool for God. God asked Francis to “repair my church,” and did he ever! Joan: a shepherd girl who, like Bernadette of Lourdes, had visions that spoke to her, visions that told her to ride across war-torn France to lead the disgraced dauphin into battle and to witness the dauphin crowned king at Reims—maid turned militant turned martyr, who died at the stake with the holy name Jesu on her lips. Thomas More: husband, father, scholar, diplomat, statesman, poet, heroic defender of the Faith, Renaissance man turned martyr and saint, “His Majesty’s good servant, but God’s first

Three dramatically different figures—beggar, warrior, statesman—one faith in common. These three saints had professed the same Credo, said the same prayers, received the same Body of Christ, and died with the same God on their minds, in their hearts, and on their lips. As I attended daily mass at St. Mary Star of the Sea Church in Beverly, Massachusetts, and attended RCIA meetings in the old convent a block away, I was convinced that what had worked for these three saints, and for every other saint in Butler, would just have to be good enough for me.

Was it possible that each of the saints—not just Francis and Thomas and Joan, but every last one chronicled by Butler, to say nothing of the hundreds added since—was deluded or just plain wrong about the existence of God, the centrality of Christ, and the reality of human salvation through faith and works? That seemed unlikely to me, although I couldn’t prove otherwise

All that I knew for a certainty, and the certainty has only increased, is that morning mass is the best hour of my day. I do it—I am a Catholic—because nothing else is better for me. Two years on, nothing else seems to make much sense at all.