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“Lovely Lady, dressed in blue…” I sang this lyric every spring with my classmates as we festooned with flowers the statue of Mary during the annual May crowning at my high school. This annual ritual was a sweet way to honor Mary, if a bit sentimental. Her portrait in the Bible is quite different. She appears infrequently in the Gospels, but when she does, the scenes are powerful and poignant. As the only person to know Jesus from his birth to his death, Mary offers a unique view of his humanity and a model of discipleship that we strive to emulate today.
It wasn’t until I became a mother myself that I began to appreciate the complexities of her story. It was then that I saw her, not as a lovely lady in blue, but as a flesh-and-blood figure who experienced an astounding transformation over the course of her life. No wonder that women have turned to her over the centuries for comfort and understanding as they struggle with concerns ranging from the routine to the radical.
We often refer to Mary’s “yes” in the account of the Annunciation as the doorway to redemption. She cooperates with the Divine Plan, thus becoming a critical part of the Incarnational event – God become flesh. Her open-heartedness is all the more touching when one recalls that she was just a young girl – perhaps only thirteen – when she received startling news from an angel. Nevertheless, her prayer of praise for a God who has demanded more than she could imagine, is a model of faith and trust. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior…” (Luke 1:46-47). The exuberance in the prayer we call “the Magnificat” is truly an example of her abiding love for God and respect for his Divine Power.
My friend, Father William McNichols, captured her maturation beautifully in an article called “Mary’s Fiat”. “She is a wide-eyed child, spellbound by the apparition of an angel, or a little slip of a girl with a baby almost too big for her arms…A frightened teen-ager being led away from the violence and mayhem in the middle of the night… A frantic mother of a lost child… The perceptive woman who quietly nudges her son out of the nest and into his ministry… The Mater Dolorosa…[who] cradles, once again, her naked child in poverty…” (Jesuit Bulletin. Spring/Fall 1984. Used with permission). Mothers across miles and millennia can relate to the mixture of joy and sorrow, confusion and clarity, anguish and exhilaration that comes with giving birth to and raising a child.
Perhaps my favorite image of Mary is at Pentecost. I picture her sitting amidst the disciples with a wizened and yet expansive heart. She alone knows the experience of the Holy Spirit first-hand, so perhaps she doesn’t flinch in the midst of wind and flame. Does she recall the first time she knew the workings of the Spirit in her life? Does she reflect back on the twists and turns of her wondrous story? And does the same prayer rise to her lips as she recalls once more the “mighty things” her God has, indeed, done for her?
Pope Francis caught the attention of the world this week for more than all of his “firsts” – first Latin American pope, first Jesuit pope, etc. After the surprising announcement of his election, he reversed the usual greeting on the papal balcony by asking for the prayers of the people. He rode a bus back to his hotel, packed his own bags, and paid his bill before returning to the Vatican to take on the mantle of leadership for the entire Roman Catholic Church. At a time when hedonism has risen to new heights, this gentle shepherd’s humility is a cleansing breath of air.
It brings to mind the stunning scenario in John’s gospel when Jesus wraps a towel around his waist, stoops to the floor and begins to wash the feet of his disciples. Peter’s flustered reaction is understandable. How could his Lord assume such a degrading and humbling task? In doing so, Jesus explains, he is teaching his disciples – and us – a vital lesson. “For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did for you (John 13:15). I don’t know that Pope Francis was intentionally trying to set a similar example, but the point is well taken.
I watched a heart-wrenching documentary recently about five families struggling to live what we have come to call “the American dream.” In truth, it was simply about survival. One family was struggling to have the gas and electricity in their house restored after suffering a financial setback. A single mother wept as she described the $49,000 bill she has to pay for her young daughter’s unexpected surgery. Another mother and her son were shown shivering in the dark as they waited for the doors of a homeless shelter to open. The mother tried to keep her son’s spirits up as she promised better days ahead, even though it was clear she knew this was a pipe-dream. As the program continued, commentators spoke about the critical needs that are ramping up among the poor and the disturbing way in which we tend to demonize those who, out of desperation, turn to public assistance. Dubbing them “leeches” and slackers, we have forgotten the vital words of Jesus that we are to serve and care for each other, no matter what the needs or costs.
In the homily delivered at his inauguration Mass, Pope Francis said, “Let us never forget that authentic power is service.” As Holy Week approaches, it is a significant reminder to follow the example set by Jesus as he stooped to take on his humble task. Might we do the same, in whatever way we can, in order to bring to life his dream of a world bound together in compassion and mercy?
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On March 19th, we celebrate the Feast Day of Saint Joseph. Joseph obeyed God, even when he did not understand what was being asked of him. Strong in faith and believing that God would protect him; Joseph, in turn, protected and cared for Mary and Jesus.
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Six years ago I took off on a two-week visit to Ireland with my son, Eric. Ours was a counterpoint to the trek my husband, Ron, was about to take with our daughter, Anna. Eric and I figured that, while they were climbing to unbelievable altitudes in the Himalayas, we would be ambling from one peaceful spot to another. We were not disappointed. As we visited lyrical-sounding sites like Glendalough and the Ring of Kerry, we found ourselves slowing down as the trip progressed. One of our most memorable stops was the Rock of Cashel. According to tradition, this is where Saint Patrick converted Aenghus, the King of Munster, in the 5th century AD. On the afternoon of our visit, we sauntered among the ruins and then sat on the grass in one of those rare moments of Irish sunshine as the tourists came and went behind us.
Patrick is one of three patron saints of Ireland. He stands alongside two others – Columba and Brigit. This holy trio exemplifies the rich beauty of Celtic spirituality. It is one characterized by a reverence for God’s creation, love of learning, honoring of silence and solitude, and the embracing of a missionary spirit. I have a particular fondness for Brigit because she served as a “soul friend” to many. In some ways, she may be considered the mother of spiritual direction as others sought her out for her wisdom and insight.
As I look back on it, our amble through the Irish countryside was a way of living out Celtic spirituality. Time slowed down to the degree that we were able to while away an entire afternoon just watching the clouds drift by. I wish I could say I have retained that mindset since our return from the Emerald Isle but my schedule quickly resumed its fast pace. When I want to retreat a little from present-day realities, however, I call upon those sweet days with my son. In doing so, I draw upon the example of long-ago saints to Jesus’ lovely invitation: “Come away by yourselves to a secluded place and rest a while” (Mark 6:31).
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The feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe (December 12) is an opportunity to re-read the account of this miraculous story and to consider the needs of the poor. It begins with a simple man named Juan Diego who, while walking the long distance to church in Mexico City, hears sweet music that brings him to a standstill. He follows the heavenly voice to the top of a hill where he encounters a beautiful lady who tells him she is Mary, Mother of Christ. She instructs him to go to the local bishop and to pass along her directive to build a church on that spot. Needless to say, the bishop isn’t about to take building orders from a mere peasant. He dismisses Juan Diego who returns to the hill to relate the news to the beautiful woman. To satisfy the bishop’s request for a sign, Mary fills Juan Diego’s tilma with roses. Upon being presented to the bishop, the tilma not only yields flowers but an image of Mary in resplendent color.
There is much more to the story, but what always captures my attention is the way Mary speaks to Juan Diego in his own language as well as her expressed desire to show “love, compassion, help, and protection” for all people. Coming as it does in the season of Advent, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe calls us to consider how God’s work is being done in the midst of our lives and on behalf of everyone, rich and poor alike.
As patroness of Mexico, Our Lady of Guadalupe’s stance with and for the poor is as touching today as it was in the 16th century. Several years ago my husband, Ron, spent a week with other volunteers building a home for an impoverished family in Juarez. He returned with a changed heart, chastened by the plentitude in our own lives compared with the people who gratefully moved from a cardboard abode to a one-room cinderblock house. It was, admittedly, a small effort in world awash with human need. Nevertheless, might we all be a bit more attuned to the music in our lives that beckons us to be compassionate, caring, and generous? The miracle of Guadalupe can be more than a long-ago story. It can also be a call to listen, to act, and to have faith.
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Honoring Mary Around the World is a a full multigenerational event from Gather In My Name that help participants:
Learn how the Church honors Mary through prayer, pilgrimages, and the celebration of feast days.
Appreciate how Mary is honored around the world and in various cultures through art, prayer, devotions, and pilgrimages made to Marian shrines.
Identify ways that Mary, through her life and faith, serves as a model for discipleship.
Learn more about the Honoring Mary Around the World parish event group options, handouts, team prayer, and more!
The candy cane is a treat often associated with Saint Nicholas, the patron and protector of children. Its distinctive shape is attributed to a 17th century German choirmaster, who bent the candy into the form of a shepherd’s staff and gave it to children attending church services. The crook symbolizes the gentle image of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. As shepherd of his people, a bishop carries a hook-shaped staff called a crosier. Since Saint Nicholas was also a bishop, the candy cane serves as a perfect symbol for this patron and protector of children.
Download your Saint Nicholas Day Blessing of Candy Canes prayer cards today!
*Download includes both English & Spanish translations
The neighborhood is starting to light up. Orange lights are strung across porch railings and pumpkins, scarecrows, and witches are perched along curbsides. One household erected a fake cemetery in their front yard while another strung a huge spider web between two enormous pine trees. It’s beginning to look a lot like Halloween.
I can’t say I ever got into such elaborate decorating, other than setting out a jack o’ lantern or two. Nevertheless, I have a deep affection for this holiday. As a child, it was magical to run around the neighborhood, dressed in a cheesy costume and seeing how much candy I could haul home before my trick-or-treat bag burst. As a teacher, it was fun coming up with art projects and games to match the holiday festivities. And as a parent, I took delight in accompanying my children as they raced from house to house. There was something festive about being out among neighbors in the dark of night.
Despite its name, Halloween pre-dates All Saints Day. Originating with the ancient Celts, October 31 was a day to both celebrate the year’s harvest as well as to honor the dead. As Christianity took hold, the autumnal observance took on sacred meaning from the Church’s celebration of All Saints Day, originally celebrated in May. By the 7th century, these two ancient holidays were merged, making the Eve of All Hallows a time to both acknowledge the passage into death and to celebrate those who have passed into Eternal Life.
These days I am more drawn to All Saints Day than Halloween. This seems natural since I now have so many family members and friends who have joined the Communion of Saints. When sleep won’t come due to a mind racing with anxiety, angst, or overload, I find comfort in this sacred circle. Memories flow over me and I breathe their names in a silent litany. It’s another ritual played out in the dark, one that brings comfort, peace, and a rich feeling of blessedness among those whose presence lingers despite the worlds that lie between us.
Initiate a class or family discussion about the saints whom you admire. How can you make an effort to be more “saintly” in your daily life?
Download my prayer for Halloween and use it in your home or parish to pray for the safety and well-being of children as they celebrate the holiday.
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I read a story recently about a study of the happiest countries on five different continents. Results showed that it wasn’t a surplus of money or goods that equated happiness. Rather it was the absence of worry about the future and a high degree of face-to-face socialization. The findings shouldn’t surprise us. Great saints have been demonstrating for centuries that the road to happiness usually winds its way through simple pleasures.
Monday (October 15th) marked the feast of one of the Church’s greatest saints – Teresa of Avila. I think of her as the “joyful mystic”. Her initial experience of religious life did not entail a life of poverty; it was quite the opposite. Social class in 16th century Spain determined the accommodations one was given in a convent. In Teresa’s case, her quarters consisted of a suite of rooms, including a private kitchen. Hardly the life of a severe aesthetic!
Teresa was known for her beautiful looks, her vivacious charm, and her culinary gifts. Even though hers was a relatively simple life, she became increasingly aware that the crowded community in which she lived was not allowing her to develop a serious prayer life. She eventually left and founded the Order of the Discalced (meaning “shoeless”) Carmelites. It was in a life of intentional poverty and transience that Teresa found her true calling. Although she survived a serious illness that left her with digestive problems for the remainder of her life, she retained a joyous outlook on life. “Save me from sour-faced saints,” she once quipped. I believe her joy emanated from her continual awareness of God’s presence
One of Teresa’s best-known reflections is called “The Bookmark Prayer.” “Let nothing trouble you, let nothing frighten you,” it begins. Put all trust and hope in God’s unchanging love and all needs will be met. It is a great prayer for our time. It doesn’t take too much effort to recite an endless litany of our woes. Despite the great advantages of technology, all of the time we spend on computers robs us of face-time with one another. Bookmarking our days with Teresa’s prayer of faith is a much-needed antidote to worry and loneliness that can turn our attitude towards life from drudgery to joy.
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