Saturday, December 31, 2011

Oblate Joy!

On October 27, the day that I was to become enrolled as an Oblate Candidate of the Handmaids of the Precious Blood I ran over to Gesu Church on my lunch break for a quick confession and I met Friar Paul Schneider in the confession line. It was a chance meeting with someone that I had recognized from activities at St. Francis de Sales Seminary but had not known personally. I introduced myself and then he told me that he had two more years before he would be ordained to the priesthood and he asked me to pray for him. I took his words as a confirmation that God was pleased with my plans to work toward becoming an Oblate of the Precious Blood. But by the grace of God, that meeting wasn't the end of the story...

During the week before Christmas, I received a newsletter from the Handmaids of the Precious Blood and within it I found a picture of none other than Friar Paul Schneider! The caption read: "In August, Oblate of the Precious Blood and long time friend of our community, Friar Paul Schneider made his Solemn Vows as a Conventual Franciscan at Marytown. We all rejoiced in spirit over this important milestone in his life as he makes his way toward priestly ordination in 2013. Please pray for him." Chills, that's what I had; chills and goosebumps to find his picture there and to learn that he is also an Oblate of the Precious Blood! Surely this was a providential sign from God!

There are only 420 Oblates of the Precious Blood throughout the world, so to find that there is an Oblate living in the very same city in which I live is quite extraordinary! Friar Paul and I have now been in contact and have plans to meet at the end of January, and when we meet I will have something very special to share with him before I send it on to the Handmaids of the Precious Blood at Cor Jesu Monastery in New Mexico, because...

When I first began to discern whether or not to apply for candidacy for the Oblates, I had discovered several books written by Fr. Gerald Fitzgerald, the founder of the Handmaids of the Precious Blood, at the Salzmann Library at St. Francis de Sales Seminary. I found his books of poetry, Paths from Bethlehem and Streets in Nazareth and his book of spiritually uplifting words written in letter style, Letters of Father Page, to be beautiful, and I have shared some of his words and poems from these books in previous posts. I decided that I should purchase these books so that I could return to them again and again as a spiritual resource and so I ordered some used copies online and on Christmas Eve they were delivered to my house.

I found that Paths from Bethlehem was autographed with the words: "Asking our Lady to bless you" and Streets in Nazareth was also an autographed copy with the words: "With Mary's blessing." But even more impressive was what I found tucked just under the cover of Paths from Bethlehem. Upon opening the book I found several historical papers, including the Christmas bookmark that graces this post. One of the documents was a biographical sketch of Fr. Fitzgerald that read as follows:

"The author was born on October 29th, 1894, in South Framingham, Massachusetts. He was educated at Weymouth High School, Boston College and St. John's Ecclesiastical Seminary and was ordained a priest of the Boston archdiocese in 1921. After twelve years service as curate of Our Lady of the Presentation parish, he entered the Novitiate of the Congregation of the Holy Cross and was professed in 1934. He is now Rector of Our Lady of Holy Cross Seminary in North Easton, Massachusetts, and devotes his spare time to retreat work. His Letters, written under the pseudonyms "Father Page" and "A. Page," have appeared in Columbia and The Far East. Father Fitzgerald's previous works include Juxta Crucem, Paths from Bethlehem and God's Rainbow."

Also within the book I found a newspaper clipping of a poem written by Fr. Fitzgerald and the following typed poem of which the source is not named with a handwritten note on the bottom. The poem follows:

"I saw the Face of God these last days three
Mirrored in a soul so pure
The vision came clearly back to me.
His eyes, the dwelling-place of the Holy Ghost
Blazoned with an aureole alight with Love from His Host
Yet now and then, his brow furrowed with grief
Remembering the Thorn-Crowned Head,
the nail-pierced Hands and Feet.
In another moment his face was wreathed in a smile
Beatific, golden radiance all absent from trace of guile
It was brushed thereon by the lips of His mother
Joyous because her earthly son so loved His Brother.
This little page ever listing for heavenly commands
Walks daily with these Loved Ones, hand in hands.
And the cherished grace I hope from my retreat
Is to find my hand in theirs some day
When I clasp their little page's close in friendship pure and sweet.

And it was signed:

"As to the first, I cannot say, but to the last, I'll be always-Humbly at Our Mother's feet and in His Heart-A. Page C.S.C ."

What a treasure to find these antique papers from Fr. Fitzgerald, the Handmaids of the Precious Blood founder, all for the pittance of $3.00 plus shipping! It's too good for me to keep to myself, so after I show them to Friar Paul Schneider, I will send them to the Handmaids so that they may enjoy them as well. And all of this good fortune only intensifies the joy I feel whenever I contemplate the wonder of the priesthood and the great gift that all priests bring to the Catholic Church.

We've all had experiences in our lives, haven't we, where a priest has been there for us in a special way and through his kindness, we were given a glimpse, a foretaste, of the goodness of God and His love for us? Whether an illness brought a priest to anoint us, our sinfulness brought us to the confessional for the gift of absolution or our desire to receive the very Body and Blood of our Lord carried us to the communion line where the hands of a priest presented our Eucharistic Lord to us for our consumption; our priests have been God's instruments of grace in our lives. When our world turns upside down and we long to bare our soul to someone who can guide us in the ways that please the Lord, it is to the priest that we turn for assistance and direction. When ordinary and Sacramental joys bring cause for celebration in our lives, it is the priest that we invite to celebrate with us. Where would we be without a beloved priest in our midst to be Christ for us though every moment of our lives?

Recently, when my son Joe was ill and spent five days in the hospital, he was visited by Fr. Peter and Fr. Dave who both anointed him, Fr. Matthew and Fr. Jim who visited and prayed with him and Bishop Hying who also prayed and visited with him. I was deeply moved and marveled over how wonderful it is to receive the gift of the presence of holy and humble priests who give of their time so generously to bring prayer and the Sacraments to all of those in need, including my son. What a blessing it is to have priests who love and care for you and your family and what a blessing it is to love and care for those priests in return! And how best to love and care for them? With prayer!

I feel tremendously blessed to be called to pray for all priests, for those who have touched my life through their offering of the Sacraments and through their many kindnesses to me, for those whom I don't know personally but may meet in the future through God's providence, for those men who are discerning a call to the priesthood and studying in the seminary and for those who have spent their entire lives being Christ for others and are now called to rest in the Lord for all eternity. But most of all, I am blessed to pray for the one special priest who has been assigned to me through the Handmaids of the Precious Blood. Through my prayers I am able to lift the hands of the men who lift Christ up for the world.

Prayer is a gift, the most beautiful and precious gift that we can give to others and it is this gift that I offer in joy for God's chosen men, His holy priests, through the loving sacrifice of every moment of my days. I will forever be grateful for the Handmaids of the Precious Blood and for the guidance of the soul of Fr. Gerald Fitzgerald, sP for the opportunity to humbly join them at our Mother's feet and in His Heart in prayer for priests as an Oblate Candidate and please God, soon as an Oblate of the Precious Blood.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament by Fr. Matthew Widder

Earlier in December I wrote a post about Fr. Matthew Widder and his moving and heartfelt homily about the Blessed Mother and our Eucharistic Lord given during a holy hour for life on the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I recalled that Fr. Matthew has a deep devotion to Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament and, not knowing anything about our Lady under this title, I asked him to tell me more about her. Through Fr. Matthew I learned that this devotion was founded by St. Peter Julian Eymard after a vision he received of the Blessed Mother in 1851 in France and the feast day is celebrated on May 13th, which later also became the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima. He kindly shared an Advent article about Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament that he had written for his parish bulletin with me, and now, with his permission, I share it with you. What follows is a guest post by Fr. Matthew Widder about Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament:

One of my favorite titles for Mary is Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament. The devotion to Mary under the title of Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament is new to me. I came across the image when I was looking for a Holy Card to commemorate my ordination to the Priesthood. In selecting a holy card I was looking for an image that would summarize my spirituality. When I saw the image of Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament I was hooked immediately. I would like to share a couple of the reasons why this image of Mary touches me so deeply.

First I love how Mary is looking directly at Jesus, and in doing so is illustrating that devotion to Mary always points us to Jesus. When we pray a Marian prayer Mary is not the end of the prayer. Pope John Paul II used to say, “to Jesus through Mary.” This saying illustrates that Mary always directs us and our prayers to her Son. It is fair to say that we do not pray to Mary but that we pray with Mary. In looking at Jesus, Mary is modeling the manner of discipleship for all Christians. No matter what we get ourselves into throughout life we always look to Jesus.

Secondly, I love the fact that in this picture Mary is not holding the baby Jesus close to her, instead she is holding baby Jesus out as if she is handing him off to be held by one of us. The lesson for us here is that as we live our faith, as Jesus is born into our lives, we eventually have to, “pass the baby.” Our spirituality is never completely individual but is always communal and always leading us to share our faith with others through service.

Lastly, the baby Jesus is holding the Eucharist out to us. In this season of Advent we not only recall Jesus’ birth, and the time when he will come again, but we also prepare for his coming to us through the sacraments, especially through the Eucharist. The closest we will ever get to Jesus on this earth is when we receive the Eucharist. How lucky we are to have a God who wishes to be so close to us!

Whenever I look at the depiction of Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament, I always feel inspired and recharged. The image always focuses me on what is important in my ministry and in my life: Jesus (through Mary), Service, and Eucharist. I’ve just shared a bit of my own spirituality. Let me ask a question for you to think about. How would you sum up your own spirituality, or means of getting closer to Christ? Is there a particular place, devotion, picture, person, etc, that always seems to recharge your spiritual batteries? In this season of preparing for Christ’s coming how does he make himself known to you?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Woman, Behold Your Son

"Woman, behold your son." ~John 19:26

That was the scriptural prayer that I held in my heart on the feast of St. John the Evangelist as I stood for 90 minutes at the bedside of my son, Joe, while he was in recovery from surgery. Joe, whose illness I wrote about briefly in my recent posts, Kneeling in the Manger and Lullaby Revisited, was suffering horrific pain from a large, infected lymph node in his neck that required surgery to drain the infection.

Joe asked to put off the surgery so that he could spend Christmas at home with his family, but on Monday morning, the day after Christmas, Joe came to me as soon as he awoke in the morning and said, "I'm ready. Let's go to the hospital." By Tuesday afternoon at 3 PM, providentially at the Hour of Divine Mercy, Joe was in surgery to have the infected lymph node that was behind his neck muscle drained of the infection that was the source of his suffering. Every surgery has possible complications associated with it and Joe's surgery was no exception, as the lymph node was so swollen and large at about 6 cm. in length, that it was pressing on an artery that led to his brain and it was possible that the artery was also infected.

There are times in your life when you can truly "feel" the prayers of others, and this was one of them. Promises of prayer came soaring in from friends and family and although we were all stressed and worried, my family had never before felt more loved and more protected by God than at any other time we can recall. The morning of the surgery we were visited by two priests who both performed the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick for Joe, and another priest who came to pray with us after the surgery was over. A quick visit from some dear friends brought cheer just a few hours before the surgery and then, after the surgery began, more friends arrived to keep watch with us and to distract us from our worries with lively conversation during the long 90 minute wait until the surgery was successfully completed and Joe was sent to recovery.

By 4:30 PM, I was allowed to go to Joe's bedside where I remained, standing, for the next 90 minutes until he was recovered enough to return to his room. During those 90minutes, he was continuously given morphine for his pain until he could tolerate it and popsicles to soothe his dry and aching throat. By his third popsicle, Joe was all smiles.

As I stood by his side, I thought about the fact that the surgery occurred on the Feast of St. John the Evangelist and I pictured St. John and the Blessed Mother at the foot of the cross and Jesus telling his mother, "Woman, behold your son." In my heart I knew that He was speaking those words to me now. And I beheld my beautiful, brave and wonderful son suffering the most misery he had ever known, yet I felt peace. On the day of the crucifixion, there was no peace for the Blessed Mother as she listened to the jeers of the taunting crowd and solders while witnessing her Son's suffering in the surroundings of hate. But here, at my son's bedside, as Joe suffered with his own cross, we were only surrounded by love and goodness and it felt as if all of our friends and family who supported and prayed for us were truly living the gospel message, the famous words frequently spoken by St. John the Evangelist, "Love one another."

Joe remains in the hospital until the type of infection can be determined so that the appropriate antibiotic can be prescribed, and although he remains in much pain, he knows that he is loved and that is the best medicine by far! And I thank you, dear reader, for your loving prayers as well!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Wonder of the Incarnation by Bishop Hying

Because Christ entered into human history, the apostles proclaimed the Gospel to the ends of the earth, martyrs gave up their lives rather than their faith and a new philosophical understanding of the person emerged.

Because of Christmas, soaring cathedrals rose over Europe, universities and hospitals opened their doors and missionaries sailed across oceans in wooden ships.

Because of what we celebrate today, four churchwomen were murdered in El Salvador for their stance with the poor, a pope sold his fisherman’s ring to aid a slum in Brazil and a wrinkled woman in a sari lovingly pulled dying people out of gutters.

The church has never gotten over the wonder of the Incarnation, the startling truth that, in the person of Jesus Christ, this one specific human being living at one historical point in time in a precise geographical place expressed in the fullest possible way the union of God and human nature.

God had entered his own creation to redeem it and restore it from the inside. In his mystical theology, St. Bonaventure expresses this burning, passionate love of God who desires nothing less than complete identification with every human being.

Christmas changes everything! If God is one with us through the power of Christ’s Spirit, alive and active through the church, life is radically different for us. God is not out there somewhere, unreachable and unknowable.

In the tender vulnerability of Christ’s humanity, God has completely united his life with ours. This enfleshed Divine Word has become the language of our own human experience; Jesus explains us to ourselves.

How telling it is that Mary and Joseph could not find a room for the birth of Jesus. In a world of sin, violence, sorrow and selfishness, there was no room for this tiny, warm God who had come only to love and heal.

Is there any more room for God today? Is there space for justice and peace? Is there room for prayer and virtue? Does God truly hold center place in our lives and our global society? If we sometimes feel that God has been pushed into the corner, then it is to the corner that we must go.

There is a tendency within us to want to clean up the Christ story, to make it respectable, orderly and dignified. In so many ways, it was none of that. God was born of an itinerant mother in an animal shelter with smelly manure and dirty shepherds. God died on a bloody cross, scourged and rejected, cut off as one accursed.

We cannot romanticize the Christian narrative without decreasing its potent reality. God comes to us in all of the messiness and lunacy of the real world to save us as we are, not to redeem some idealized version of ourselves.

The Incarnation of Christ powerfully proclaims the humility and vulnerability of God. Setting aside the majesty, glory and safety of heaven, the eternal Word empties himself completely, assumes the radical limitations of our humanity and runs the terrible risk of being misunderstood, rejected and killed by his own creatures!

Divine Love gives itself away in a total act of self-donation. In the Christ event, we grasp the very essence of God, who pours himself out completely for us.

As disciples of this passionate, incarnate Christ, our lives, too, will be marked by humility and vulnerability. How else can we love others with this self-emptying divine life unless we leave our comfort zones and surrender our insulating pride? How else can we give birth to the Word unless we go to the dark corners of this world?

Yes, the manure will smell, the shepherds will be uncouth, the stable will be cold, the scourging will tear our flesh, and the cross will kill us. Often, the way of Jesus makes no rational sense at all, and we do our best to live the pieces of it that we can. But Christmas challenges us to go all the way. Have a blessed one!

(Previously published in the December 22nd, 2005 and December 22nd, 2011 Milwaukee Catholic Herald and reprinted here with the permission of Bishop Hying)

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Kneeling in the Manger

These final days before Christmas bring exhaustion as the work of preparing to make merry brings wear and tear to my body and my soul. In spite of my weariness, I lie awake with worry heavy on my heart for my son who'd been sick with a sore throat earlier this month who has developed unusual complications. He had been fatigued and burning with fever, throat bright red and raw, yet he quickly healed as the virus seemed to move out of his body. Except it didn't. We didn't realize that the infection simply took up residence in a lymph node which generously shared its infective germs with the muscle in Joe's neck. Now with neck swollen to the size of a tennis ball, the pain rages from ear to sternum and my son can't move his head at all for the suffering he bears. Antibiotics should surely bring effective healing but the threat of an emergency room visit on Christmas Eve looms over our heads if that healing doesn't happen quickly.

In the middle of the night, I silently step into my son's room and kneel at the side of his bed, listening to his breath coming heavy and deep, and I offer a wordless prayer, just a movement of the heart in God's direction, a prayer that is for both of my sons who sleep in that room, as morning will bring a final psychological examination as part of the application process for seminary for my oldest son and I know that he carries stress and worry in his heart over that process-over the fear of the unknown-both regarding what the test will be like and whether or not he will be accepted to the seminary. My heart is heavy with a mother's love.

And I think of Mary and Joseph kneeling in the manger, cold and hungry, tired and scared, in prayer and adoration for their Son, the King. Fear and worry surely must have gripped their hearts as well-fear of the unknown abiding side by side with a deep love for their child. Were they, like me, unable to find words of prayer? Were they simply opening their hearts to God's presence in trustful surrender to whatever His plan would bring for their lives? I know the answer to my question is yes; they did surrender wholly to God's plan and so I will, too.

I will let my worry and my sorrow go and I will cling to peaceful trust in God as an offering for all of those who have larger worries this Christmas-for those who have suffered the loss of a loved one at this time of year when they want more than ever to be in the presence of those they love, for all of the clients who come to the WIC Clinic in droves trying to find some financial assistance to provide healthy foods for their families as their pocketbooks are strained by the burden of buying gifts, for those families who spend Christmas in the hospital kneeling at the bedside of their children who are ill with serious diseases such as cancer, for parents whose children have rebelled against their authority, against the law and against God and have brought the wounds of deep and cutting pain to the hearts of those who love them, and for all of those who feel a searing loneliness within-for all of these people, too, are kneeling in the manger.

My sorrow and worry is small and placed in the hands of God it is quickly overshadowed by His great love. Kneeling in the manger of my sons' room as they sleep I know that my blessings far outweigh my struggles and with Mary and Joseph to accompany me on my life's journey I will surely be able to bear whatever sorrows come my way by following their example of trustful surrender to the Holy Will of God.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Mary Kept All These Things

"And Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart." ~Luke 2:19

As she was nurturing His body for the growth of infancy and for the love of childhood did she realize that she was preparing Him to die?

When she felt that first interior kick in belly swollen with His life, did she think about the nail that would fasten His feet tightly to the wood to redeem our sinful souls?

As she wrapped Him tight in the swaddling, held Him close in the dark damp cave so cold and nursed Him to fill his empty stomach, did she understand about His empty heart hungry for the love of the world?

When He suckled til satisfied and dozed in her arms while one last drop of milk slipped from the corner of His mouth onto the cold stone floor, did she see it as a foreshadowing of the one last drop of precious blood that would drip from His open side?

As His little chubby hand finally released her finger and He gave way to the deepness of sleep, could she feel the grip He would have upon the nail that would one day hollow his hand?

When she stroked His fragrant brow with a mother's tender love, did she picture the thorns meant to pierce that very spot in a vain attempt to mar His perfection?

As she finally set Him down to rest in the manger made of wood, did she know that the wood from which His resting place was made was the same wood from which His beaten and bruised body would hang until lifeless?

When she watched Him as He slept so soundly did she think about the last time His body would be taken from her arms and laid in another dark damp cave so cold?

And do we know?

Do we know that as we prepare our hearts and our homes for Christmas, as we shop and cook and clean, as we wrap and write and decorate, striving to make our hearts and homes a fit place for Christmas joy, that the same child who will be born within us will also die within us? Each time we carry our crosses of suffering, torment and shame, our crosses of sorrow, lament and pain, He dies a little more within us and we inch our way a little further into our own new life because of His death.

Be born in us, O Lord! Be born so that we may die to sin, to hate, to poverty, and to evil. Be born so that we may die to pride, to anger, to jealousy, to vengeance. Be born so that we may die to excess, to waste, to greed and to vanity. Be born so that we may live in Your love and die for Your love alone! Come, Lord, be born, live and die within us, your weak, fragile, tender, human hosts so that we may truly live for all eternity in the light of Your sweet and precious Love! Amen.