If you axe me….

photo 2

My girls, looking lovely for Mardi Gras 2014; and me, pitifully trying to look local.

Re-post from 2014. :)

It’s Lent now, but I wanted to take a quick retrospective and remember Mardi Gras day!

Now that we have been in New Orleans for nearly 2 years, I can confidently say, along with my wife, that I have fallen in love with this cultural island. Really. Truly.

I told someone up North how much I loved NOLA (New Orleans, LA), and they said with a slight hint of sarcasm in their voice, “Why?

It’s hard to say exactly why. Mostly it’s intangible. It certainly has to do with the good friends we have made here, but it also has something to do with the tangled mix of religion and culture. Like a good Bond martini, they’re shaken together, not stirred. Vice and virtue, wealth and poverty, race and genders cohabit in inexplicable ways. When I think of my brief experience here thus far, I think of a great menagerie of sumptuous food, plenteous drink, dazzling colors, meandering rivers, lazy bayous, irreconcilably diverse personalities, Cathedral square voodoo, mirror-hanging rosaries, the breastbone relic of Blessed Seelos, messy beignets, to-die-for Po’Boys, cultic football, devoted extended families, street corner jazz, Mardi Gras parades, abundant feasting, sudden fasting, crisscrossing canals, random gators, CC’s coffee, local accents that I simply cannot replicate, smooth Abita Amber beer, a mean Sazerac and oh so many other things. Local Catholicism can truly be defined the way James Joyce did in “Finnegans Wake,”

Catholic means ‘Here comes everybody.’

American author and devout Catholic Walter Percy aptly described NOLA’s island-like identity:

New Orleans is both intimately related to the South and yet in a real sense cut adrift not only from the South but from the rest of Louisiana, somewhat like Mont St. Michel awash at high tide. One comes upon it, moreover, in the unlikeliest of places, by penetrating the depths of the Bible Belt, running the gauntlet of Klan territory, the pine barrens of South Mississippi, Bogalusa, and the Florida parishes of Louisiana and ending up in the French Quarter.

But it was after reading Earl Higgins’ very funny The Joy of Y’at Catholicism that I was confirmed in my love. His book plays wonderfully on these irreconcilably reconciled elements that constitute what Flannery O’Connor would call this Christ-haunted, though not necessarily Christ-centered, Catholic culture. And there’s just something about this culture that, if you let it, pulls you in no matter who you are or where you’re from. As Higgins says it, “In New Orleans even the Jews are Catholic!”

Since I am a born and bred New Englander, steeped in a more or less pragmatic, sacrcastic puritan ethos, maybe my greatest joy here is simply reveling in quelle différence!

Someone sent me this fun and upbeat music video reflecting on the local character of New Orleans. For fun, I’ll share it with you today:

“For now we see in a glass darkly, but then face to face.” — 1 Corinthians 13:12

CTA Digital iPotty with Activity Seat for iPad. Taken from media.boingboing.net

The question of what is the most genuinely human engagement with the daily explosion of new technologies is no simple question, but for those of us who are pioneers in raising children as members of the iGeneration it’s a necessary conversation that must be had often. So much good, so much bad, and even more ambiguities that haunt the space between the two. Let me share just one example of that conversation here.

Not long ago I was speaking with a parent and we were talking about this question. She shared their family struggle over the use of technologies in the home and had some really stirring thoughts. She gave me permission to share her general thoughts. I share her comments because her struggle is so real and honest. She and her husband have given lots of thought to this question and have devised their own plan over the years to try to create in their home a healthy balance. But they find that balance hard to strike and elusive. Her comments went something like this:

We keep telling them technology’s just a part of their life. Fat chance they’ll buy that line, huh? But my teens of course are the worst. My daughter, once she came right back at me and said, “No, Ma, it IS my life. It’s all my friends’ life. You just don’t get it because you’re old.” Once she said to me, “Why are you so strict? It’s ridiculous. NOBODY else is so strict.” I said to her, and I was ticked, “Because if we didn’t set limits you’d never get off!” She came right back at me, like a good teenager, “I get my work done. It’s how I stay connected with my friends; it’s how we talk; so you obviously don’t want me to have a life.” I said, “That’s not true! You don’t see it, but I do, your Dad does. When you’re on that stuff too much you get isolated and pull away from your family. You get like a zombie. And even when you’re with us for dinner or over at grandma’s or your uncle’s, you’re somewhere else; wishing you were on your iPhone.” … I didn’t sign up for this. Never imagined when we had kids in the 1990s that this would be our biggest parenting struggle. It’s everywhere. All the crap out there, trying to protect them. Get them self-control. It’s only supposed to be part of life, not life. The hardest part is that it feels like we’re the only family of our kids’ friends we know who draws these hard lines. So we look like wacko extremists. … I tell my kids, “When I was your age” — you know they roll their eyes when they hear that — I say, “When I was your age, I visited my friends’ houses. We’d sit in the bedroom and talk for hours. I would read books. I’d help my Mom pick herbs and veggies in the garden and helped make dinner.” They roll their eyes. “That’s real stuff,” I tell ’em, “not virtual. Real” I tell ’em, I was a normal teen and rebelled over this or that; and got bored with family stuff; but when I was home I was home. Like, face-to-face home.” It’s really hard to explain and they ALWAYS have something to say back about social media being realer and better because they can be friends with tons of people. But it’s different. It’s hard to explain to them, but I see it’s different. They look like bloody addicts when you take them away from their gadgets. Once when I was feeling very emotional, I put my hands on my daughter’s cheeks and pulled her face up from her iPhone and said, “See my face? It’s real. And I love looking at your face.” I put her hands on my face and said, “I love you. This is where life really happens. Skin and tears and kisses.” I kissed her and said, “Remember when you were little and we’d just snuggle in our bed in the morning and talk about everything? Why can’t I have you back again?” It was one of those rare times I dropped the “angry Mom” thing and let my guard down. We both cried and cried. It’s just so hard. I wish it wasn’t like this. Nobody prepared me for this. We’re the first ones to deal with an iPhone generation, right? No instruction manual.

Pope Benedict XVI once shared a thought on this struggle:

The new technologies allow people to meet each other beyond the confines of space and of their own culture, creating in this way an entirely new world of potential friendships. This is a great opportunity, but it also requires greater attention to and awareness of possible risks. Who is my “neighbor” in this new world? Does the danger exist that we may be less present to those whom we encounter in our everyday life? Is there is a risk of being more distracted because our attention is fragmented and absorbed in a world “other” than the one in which we live? Do we have time to reflect critically on our choices and to foster human relationships which are truly deep and lasting? It is important always to remember that virtual contact cannot and must not take the place of direct human contact with people at every level of our lives.

I’d also like to promo a book written by a friend and colleague, Dr. Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, who shares some profound insights on this conversation from the heart of the Church: Connected Toward Communion: The Church and Social Communication in the Digital Age.

Let me end with a fun video of a little girl and her parents engaging in the kind of “bedroom communion” the Mom I spoke with longed for:

Reading, Soubirous and retreating

Brandon

First, this morning Brandon Vogt of Word on Fire launched a FREE video series at ReadMoreBooksNow.com I can’t recommend it strongly enough. You’ll learn tons of reading tips and strategies, including how to conquer the two biggest challenges that prevent you from reading more books. If you want to double your reading and remember more of what you read, check it out!

Second, today is the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes — happy feast and abundant blessings on all the sick.

Third, I am giving a retreat out of town this week so will not be posting until ~February 16th. Kindly say a prayer for its success.

Peace and all good.

Photo of St. Marie Bernarde “Bernadette” Soubirous, taken from barnhardt.biz

Saved by Hope

St. Thérèse on her sickbed, taken from vultus.stblogs.org

An old post dusted off.

I was speaking with someone recently who had attempted suicide several years ago, and she gave me permission to share her insights. Everyone’s experience of depression and suicide is different, but it seems there are here some universal themes. I will offer just a few of those insights she shared.

She was and is a woman of deep Catholic faith.

Just love me

This woman had a number of catastrophic life crises happen to her in a fairly short amount of time and, as a result of the profound trauma, found herself withdrawing from her typically active life and self-isolating. She said it was a protective measure, as she could not talk about her pain with the many people who pressed her with well-intentioned questions and unsolicited advice. She said what she needed more than anything else early on was just silent, consistent, compassionate and non-verbal support. But, she said, most people found that too uncomfortable and maybe even too scary, as her inner world had grown so dark. Everyone wanted to fix her right away, tried to push her to verbalize everything. “I really get the purpose of mourning rituals now,” she said, “because they are pre-scripted ways to express your grief and hurt so you don’t have to talk; just do the rituals. But I had none of those then.” She said she wasn’t ready for fixing, or talking much. She just needed to know she was loved and supported, regardless. “And when I was ready to talk, I’d talk. It was hard for people to get.” The extreme pain was beyond words for her.

I thought to myself, what she really wanted was the “first response” of Job’s friends:

Now when three of Job’s friends heard of all the misfortune that had come upon him, they set out each one from his own place: Eliphaz from Teman, Bildad from Shuh, and Zophar from Naamath. They met and journeyed together to give him sympathy and comfort. But when, at a distance, they lifted up their eyes and did not recognize him, they began to weep aloud; they tore their cloaks and threw dust into the air over their heads. Then they sat down upon the ground with him seven days and seven nights, but none of them spoke a word to him; for they saw how great was his suffering. — Job 2:11-13

Her flight into isolation, she said, included God. She was always woman of daily prayer, but found herself unable to pray. She was numb. Angry. Confused. And soon, she said, she began to lose a sense of hope. “Hope,” she said, “for me, hope is my God anchor. God was always my rock. But God when seemed silent, absent, distant it was scary. When I lost sight of Him I lost my compass, my firm footing. My pain had no meaning without Him. Only He can make it all make sense in the end.” It was in this stretch of hopelessness that she first seriously contemplated suicide, simply as a way to end the pain. And were it not for a fortuitous encounter with a man of faith that helped her turn the corner, she said, she may very well have killed herself. A Christian co-worker gave her some passages from the Bible to read that related to her darkness. They pulled her back from the edge of the cliff. “I read them one day when I was alone in my apartment, and when I got to Romans 8:28, something in me opened; a light turned on.”

And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.

She was sure she’d heard these words before, but now they spoke to her, she said. “Jesus said them to me. I knew it was Him and that I wasn’t ever alone.” The message for her was clear: give me your pain, let me love you and I’ll restore your hope in my purpose for your life.

Saved by Hope

This made me think of Pope Benedict’s words in Spe Salvi,

We can try to limit suffering, to fight against it, but we cannot eliminate it. It is when we attempt to avoid suffering by withdrawing from anything that might involve hurt, when we try to spare ourselves the effort and pain of pursuing truth, love, and goodness, that we drift into a life of emptiness, in which there may be almost no pain, but the dark sensation of meaninglessness and abandonment is all the greater. It is not by sidestepping or fleeing from suffering that we are healed, but rather by our capacity for accepting it, maturing through it and finding meaning through union with Christ, who suffered with infinite love.

In this context, I would like to quote a passage from a letter written by the Vietnamese martyr Paul Le-Bao-Tinh († 1857) which illustrates this transformation of suffering through the power of hope springing from faith. “I, Paul, in chains for the name of Christ, wish to relate to you the trials besetting me daily, in order that you may be inflamed with love for God and join with me in his praises, for his mercy is for ever. The prison here is a true image of everlasting Hell: to cruel tortures of every kind—shackles, iron chains, manacles—are added hatred, vengeance, calumnies, obscene speech, quarrels, evil acts, swearing, curses, as well as anguish and grief. But the God who once freed the three children from the fiery furnace is with me always; he has delivered me from these tribulations and made them sweet, for his mercy is for ever. In the midst of these torments, which usually terrify others, I am, by the grace of God, full of joy and gladness, because I am not alone —Christ is with me…I write these things to you in order that your faith and mine may be united. In the midst of this storm I cast my anchor towards the throne of God, the anchor that is the lively hope in my heart”.

This is a letter from “Hell”. It lays bare all the horror of a concentration camp, where to the torments inflicted by tyrants upon their victims is added the outbreak of evil in the victims themselves, such that they in turn become further instruments of their persecutors’ cruelty. This is indeed a letter from Hell, but it also reveals the truth of the Psalm text: “If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I sink to the nether world, you are present there … If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall hide me, and night shall be my light’ —for you darkness itself is not dark, and night shines as the day; darkness and light are the same” (Ps 139 [138]:8-12; cf. also Ps 23 [22]:4). Christ descended into “Hell” and is therefore close to those cast into it, transforming their darkness into light. Suffering and torment is still terrible and well- nigh unbearable. Yet the star of hope has risen—the anchor of the heart reaches the very throne of God. Instead of evil being unleashed within man, the light shines victorious: suffering—without ceasing to be suffering—becomes, despite everything, a hymn of praise.

This woman added one last point that powerfully punctuated her witness: “Without faith in God, who’s love is never not there, it’s very hard to keep hope when life grows bleak. My message to all who struggle with these thoughts is: even while you get help from other people, cling to God and to His Word. He’ll never leave you.”

La Petit Fleur

To end, I’d like to share, without additional commentary, the words of St. Thérèse. Her sister, Mother Agnes, mentioned to her a week before she died how terribly she had suffered. Thérèse replied,

Yes! What a grace it is to have faith! If I had not any faith, I would have committed suicide without an instant’s hesitation (Last Conversations 22.9.6).

About a month earlier she said to her sister, Agnes:

Watch carefully, Mother, when you will have persons a prey to violent pains; don’t leave near them any medicines that are poisonous. I assure you, it needs only a second when one suffers intensely to lose one’s reason. Then one could easily poison oneself.

Again, another young sister who was helping to nurse Thérèse — Sr. Marie of the Trinity — later shared:

Three days before she died, I saw her in such pain that I was heartbroken. When I drew near to her bed, she tried to smile, and, in a strangled sort of voice, she said: If I didn’t have faith, I could never bear such suffering. I am surprised that there aren’t more suicides among atheists.

Words of St. Silouan the Athonite to a young priest who asked him how he might be saved, from keepcalm-o-matic.co.uk

 

“His mercy endures for ever” — Psalm 136:1

From “The Passion of the Christ,” taken from bp.blogspot.com

One of the greatest and most awesome privileges that comes with working within the institutional Church is being made privy to countless stories of the human encounter with God, and on occasion I am given permission by some of those I meet to share their stories with others through my writing and my teaching. As yesterday was a day dedicated to overcoming the culture of death with prayer, penance and the witness of lived proclamations of the Gospel of life, I thought I would share the very personal and powerful story of a woman whom I also count as a friend. Though she will remain anonymous, her voice is clear and real and powerful and I have the honor of sharing it with you today. May it bear abundant fruit.

I had two abortions. I was young and unmarried. Though my boyfriend and I had taken every care with contraceptives, something went amiss. We didn’t really want the abortion but we didn’t want to move from our single life into the complexities of family life. We were fortunate to live in a state where abortion was legal. I remembered vividly my high school health class textbook. The section on abortion was illustrated with a shocking photo of a dead, naked woman lying in a pool of blood. That was what happened when abortion was illegal.

My fears were only about myself: that it might hurt, that I might be endangered by the surgery, that it would be embarrassing. I told no one besides my boyfriend. I went to the clinic alone. It hurt terribly and I cried in fear and pain. The woman assisting the doctor chastised me impatiently. “You wanted this, right? So what are you crying for? Settle down.”  I hated her. When the doctor was finished she held a dish by my head, so I could see that they had done the job. The fetus was too small or too damaged for me to recognize, but I nodded anyway.

The second time was like a bad dream revisited. Same boyfriend, same mysterious failure of contraceptives (now used with even more care, since that first accident). Same tears. Impatient words from the assistant: “You’re upsetting the other girls. Calm down. What are you crying for?” I hated her, too.

I did feel relieved after. The problem was solved. It was not unlike finally getting the mouse or bird out of your house: it’s not that you want to harm it. But it just can’t stay. The only way to get rid of it is to keep whacking at it with a broom or towel or call the cat in. Then it’s dead and it’s kind of gross and you feel bad, but at least the problem is solved.

I assumed I’d forget about it. I certainly tried to avoid thinking about it. I skipped any articles about abortion in the news and crossed the street if anti-abortion protestors were out. Though I eventually married I never had children.

Decades later I discovered that God existed. Through His gentle nudges I entered the Catholic Church. I was initially happy to be “mostly Catholic.” I turned my eyes and ears away from the harder words about the dignity of life. After all, lots of Catholics didn’t really buy into all the details. There was room to keep my own opinions, especially about my rights as a modern woman.

The problem was God didn’t share my agenda. I wanted Him. I loved Him with all my heart. I wanted to give Him every breath, every heartbeat, every ounce of my body and soul and mind. I still thought some of it was mine to give. But slowly I realized that it wasn’t. It was all His to begin with. I had no claim to my own life whatsoever. And as that sank in, the ghastly awfulness of what I had done so many years ago became clear.

The most profound expression of God’s love is His creativity. He cares for every hair on our heads, He draws each flower from its bud, He lifts each nestling from its egg, He brings each worm out of its mud-puddle. He loves his Creation. He made me. He loves me. I began to see that the ugliness in what I had done was not in the fact that it left me sad, or hurt, or was unpleasant and a bit shameful. The ugliness was that God had drawn life into my womb and I had spit in His face. He had given me a treasure crafted with the greatest care and I had thrown it in the trash.

My excuses were immaturity, ignorance, self-interest, financial woes, shame, anxiety. My excuses were a defensive maneuver. My excuses were a way of trying to protect myself from the pain of the truth. The truth was I had sinned so enormously that forgiveness was unimaginable. That was terrifying. I deserved an eternity in hell. God had given me my very own existence and the beautiful awakening awareness of His real presence in my heart. And I had despised Him. I was absolutely horrified. That newly recognized truth burned through me like invisible fire. I wept and prayed.

I finally found the courage to tell my confessor. I did not do the clever trick of going to a big city cathedral where the priest wouldn’t know me. I told the priest who knew me. He had heard my many piddling confessions in the past.  I went to him for spiritual direction regularly.  He took confessions in his office, face to face. I got straight to the point, already in tears, hand over my face in shame. He cut me off after the kind and number so I wouldn’t have to go into painful details. I wasn’t the first woman to confess this in his many years of priesthood. We prayed together. God heals.

The fullness of the healing was not instantaneous, but it started that day. It is one thing to know that God forgives, and another to accept His tender touch.  My heart is still wounded. I expect it will be forever, and that seems right and just, as does any reparation my Lord deems fit to require of me. Other women I know who had abortions carry wounds in their hearts, too. I have never met a woman (or man) who found abortion forgettable. Even in old age they remember and regret. What seems possible, through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, is a healing of the relationship with God, so that in honest acknowledgement of our sin and pain we are brought closer to Him instead of driven away from Him.

In hindsight – after the dust settled and I saw with clearer eyes – I realized there was something unexpectedly beautiful that came out of that difficult confession. We don’t often let ourselves be so broken down. I’m sure it must be similar for those struggling with any mortal sin. It’s so very frightening to drop the justifications and admit how deeply we have offended God. That, truly, must be the transformative moment: not the fear that Father Smith might cringe inside and think poorly of us, but the horror at having offended our Lord and Savior. That is, I think, the acceptance of God’s judgment. God’s agenda, recognized as superior to our own, means a raw reassessment of all our values and priorities. Especially the ones we’d rather not sacrifice.

When we surrender our defenses, give up our pride and throw ourselves in desperation and shame upon His mercy, I think He must weep with joy. My conversion opened the door to go into a terrible darkness I had avoided for many years. Once graced with the courage to go in, the way out was illuminated, and led to the discovery of such an in-pouring of mercy and forgiveness and love that words hardly do it justice. I am so very grateful for that. It has been a few years since that confession, and I am still moved to awe and wonder when I reflect on it.

Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.

1/22/73

Re-post.

“The Virgin with Child,” Magyar Nemzeti Galéria, c. 1420

In all the dioceses of the United States of America, January 22 (or January 23, when January 22 falls on a Sunday) shall be observed as a particular day of penance for violations to the dignity of the human person committed through acts of abortion, and of prayer for the full restoration of the legal guarantee of the right to life. The Mass “For Peace and Justice” (no. 22 of the “Masses for Various Needs”) should be celebrated with violet vestments as an appropriate liturgical observance for this day. –General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 373

In an annual recognition of the Roe v. Wade anniversary, our U.S. Bishops have made January 22 to be a penitential “Ash Wednesday” of sorts in which we are required as Catholics to wrap our prayer in penance as we beg for God’s mercy to pardon the slayers of the pre-born, to awaken the consciences of all to the inviolable dignity given by God to each human being at the moment of conception, to aid us in building a culture of life that obviates the temptation to abort and, as the quote above says, to restore legal protection that guarantees the pre-born’s right to life.

Every child who, rather than being born, is condemned unjustly to being aborted, bears the face of Jesus Christ, bears the face of the Lord, who even before he was born, and then just after birth, experienced the world’s rejection. And every elderly person…even if he is ill or at the end of his days, bears the face of Christ. They cannot be discarded, as the ‘culture of waste’ suggests! — Pope Francis

We pray for the hastening of the day when a prominent civil rights activist will write in an article marking the anniversary of this court decision,

As we recall that there once was a time when we, under the pretext of civil liberties and human rights, defended the chemical burning, dismembering, evacuating and poisoning of pre-born human beings, let us reaffirm this day our unrelenting commitment to be a voice for the voiceless and a defender of the defenseless. Let us reassert our resolve to labor and give birth to a world wherein every child conceived is welcomed by their mother, their father and by a human family united by the bonds of love, compassion and justice. May we never again fail to see in each pre-born human life a living witness to the fragile web of our interdependence and the primordial sign that we are our brother’s and our sister’s keeper…

Two vantages, one reality

I will leave you with two quotes — one that reflects on the need for truth and the second on the need for compassion. The first quote is by a pro-choice feminist Naomi Wolf, written in the October 16,1995 edition of The New Republic, in an article called “Our Bodies, Our Souls: Rethinking Pro-choice Rhetoric.” The second quote is by Pope St. John Paul II, and is taken from his March 25, 1995 Encyclical, Evangelium Vitae #99.

So what will it be: Wanted fetuses are charming, complex, REM-dreaming little beings whose profile on the sonogram looks just like Daddy, but unwanted ones are mere “uterine material”? How can we charge that it is vile and repulsive for pro-lifers to brandish vile and repulsive images if the images are real? To insist that the truth is in poor taste is the very height of hypocrisy. Besides, if these images are often the facts of the matter, and if we then claim that it is offensive for pro-choice women to be confronted by them, then we are making the judgment that women are too inherently weak to face a truth about which they have to make a grave decision. This view of women is unworthy of feminism. Free women must be strong women, too; and strong women, presumably, do not seek to cloak their most important decisions in euphemism. – Naomi R. Wolf

I would now like to say a special word to women who have had an abortion. The Church is aware of the many factors which may have influenced your decision, and she does not doubt that in many cases it was a painful and even shattering decision. The wound in your heart may not yet have healed. Certainly what happened was and remains terribly wrong. But do not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope. Try rather to understand what happened and face it honestly. If you have not already done so, give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance. The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. To the same Father and his mercy you can with sure hope entrust your child. With the friendly and expert help and advice of other people, and as a result of your own painful experience, you can be among the most eloquent defenders of everyone’s right to life. Through your commitment to life, whether by accepting the birth of other children or by welcoming and caring for those most in need of someone to be close to them, you will become promoters of a new way of looking at human life. — Pope St. John Paul II

Romane, born May 20, 2014 at 10:51 a.m. 2.935 kg. 8 seconds of life. Taken from slate.com

 

“How will you find anything in your old age?” Sirach 25:3

Below is a 2 year old post dusted off for reuse. As I re-read it, it reminded me of two things: (1) Pope Francis’ recent comments on old age and (2) a very moving video of John Fraley playing a song to his Mom who has Alzheimer’s. Here is the quote and then the video:

Harm can also be waged quietly, through many forms of neglect and abandonment, which are a real and true hidden euthanasia.

People need to fight against this poisonous throwaway culture, which targets children, young people and the elderly, on the pretext of keeping the economic system balanced, where the focus is not on the human being but on the god of money.

While residential care facilities are important for those who don’t have a family who can care for them, it’s important these institutes be truly like homes, not prisons, the pope said, and that their placement there is in the best interest of the older person, not someone else.

These retirement homes should be like sanctuaries that breathe life into a community whose members are drawn to visit and look after the residents like they would an older sibling.

+ + + +

Sts. Joachim and Anna, taken from vultus.stblogs.org

With all of the Marian themes abounding in this liturgical season, I found myself reflecting on Mary’s agèd parents, Joachim and Anna, and more generally on the significance of old age in our Catholic tradition. I recalled especially the first reading from Sirach on the feast of the Holy Family, and this line in particular:

My son, take care of your father when he is old;
grieve him not as long as he lives.
Even if his mind fail, be considerate of him;
revile him not all the days of his life;
kindness to a father will not be forgotten,
firmly planted against the debt of your sins
—a house raised in justice to you.

That reflection called me back in my memory to two places. First, to a comment Mother Teresa made when she came to visit the hospice I was working at in Washington D.C. back in 1992. She said something like this:

I was asked once who were the poorest of the poor in the United States, and I said it was those elderly men and women in nursing homes. These are so often unwanted, unloved, forgotten, abandoned, and uncared for. Let us not make a mistake. We think of hunger for a piece of bread. The hunger of today is much greater: for love – to be wanted, to be loved, to be cared for, to be somebody.

Then my memory roamed back to a conversation I had while I was in Omaha several summers ago. I was chatting with an older, “late vocation” seminarian about his experience at a non-Catholic nursing home while he was on his pastoral assignment in his diocese. We’ll call the nursing home, “Sunset.” He shared with me a set of insightful and challenging perspectives on ministry to the elderly that knocked my socks off. I told him I had to share his thoughts at some point with others. To that end, here’s a summary of his perspective:

…Every month, a priest would come and celebrate Mass at Sunset. So many of the Catholic residents wanted desperately to go to Mass every Sunday at a local parish, but had no means of getting there. Most of the residents could not drive, of course. Some had children who were fallen-away Catholics, so never wanted to go to Mass anyway. Others found themselves simply alone in their last years, for whatever reason, though some — even many — I found out were estranged from their children, or at least had a terrible relationship. Some had not heard from their children in years, were just plain old neglected by their adult children.

I used to get angry and ask myself, “Why aren’t these local parishes organizing help to get them to Mass?” I understand people are busy, pastors are overloaded with endless ministry demands and that everywhere it’s always those same 10% of the people who do 90% of the work. But if we complain about Mass attendance dropping, let’s do all we can to get all “the willing” there!

We always talk in my diocese about the pastoral priority of youth ministry in our diocese, that the young church is the future church. True enough. But if you think about it, isn’t more true that the elderly are the real future of our church? I mean, eternal life is the church’s ultimate future, and they’re about to face death after having lived a whole life as Catholics. Many of them ask for me to help them die; they’re afraid.

If the real job of the church is, in the end, to make saints, and death’s the time that finally happens or not, the church has to be there walking with them to the very end. And it’s especially these ladies I think about all the time — it bothers me — who gave so much of their time to the church volunteering over the years, passed the faith on to their children, and now, more than ever, they count on the church to help them in the last years of their life to help them prepare for death. I see them lose hope and cry over the lack of reciprocity. The church asked them all their life to pray the Hail Mary, “…pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death…” But just when “now” and “the hour of death” are about to fuse, they feel abandoned. It’s a crisis and we are just not responding as a church, I think. I feel God has given me this calling, you this calling. First to my own family and then out to others. We can’t make people think church is a NGO, a bureaucracy or programs or clerics who take care of business. It’s me and you. Jesus needs us to love these people; to touch them and smile at them and wipe their drool. Like St. Teresa says, “Christ has no body now but yours; no hands, no feet on earth but yours.”

I think the American church should put more pastoral energy into the elderly, and be a sign of contradiction to a cult-of-youth society that thinks of the elderly not as powerhouses of prayer, or as sources of wisdom, or as the generation owed a debt of gratitude by the younger generations, but as a burden and useless drain on resources due the young and the strong. Stop the rhetoric of words to fight euthanasia and start using the rhetoric of deeds. Sometimes I wonder if our particular way of placing emphasis on youth in the church is not as much a faith priority as it is a cultural one we have just swallowed like Kool-Aid. I think that if we as a church cultivated a culture of reverence, service and love for our elders, the youth would be far better served than by any youth-centered youth ministry program we could devise. I’ve seen it — when youth connect with the elderly it’s electric. God shows up.

It really hit me when one lady in her early 90s told me she used to be a devout Catholic, but was so frustrated by failed attempts to get spiritual support from the church. She said that some Pentecostal women, who used to visit a few of the residents, one day asked her if she’d like to pray with them. She was delighted. After praying with her, they asked if she’d like them to visit her several times a week. She said she would love that, and with two words she summarized what she saw as the difference: They did. They would bring her things she’d ask for — toiletries, her favorite candy — and eventually brought her to the nearby Pentecostal church most Wednesday nights and every Sunday morning.

How could she say no?

Bl. John Paul the Elder

I will give Pope St. John Paul II the final word here from his stirring Letter to the Elderly:

In the past, great respect was shown to the elderly. “Great was once the reverence given to a hoary head”, says Ovid, the Latin poet.(13) Centuries earlier, the Greek poet Phocylides had admonished: “Respect grey hair: give to the elderly sage the same signs of respect that you give your own father”.(14)

And what of today? If we stop to consider the current situation, we see that among some peoples old age is esteemed and valued, while among others this is much less the case, due to a mentality which gives priority to immediate human usefulness and productivity. Such an attitude frequently leads to contempt for the later years of life, while older people themselves are led to wonder whether their lives are still worthwhile….

…There is an urgent need to recover a correct perspective on life as a whole. The correct perspective is that of eternity, for which life at every phase is a meaningful preparation. Old age too has a proper role to play in this process of gradual maturing along the path to eternity. And this process of maturing cannot but benefit the larger society of which the elderly person is a part.

Elderly people help us to see human affairs with greater wisdom, because life’s vicissitudes have brought them knowledge and maturity. They are the guardians of our collective memory, and thus the privileged interpreters of that body of ideals and common values which support and guide life in society. To exclude the elderly is in a sense to deny the past, in which the present is firmly rooted, in the name of a modernity without memory. Precisely because of their mature experience, the elderly are able to offer young people precious advice and guidance.

In view of all this, the signs of human frailty which are clearly connected with advanced age become a summons to the mutual dependence and indispensable solidarity which link the different generations, inasmuch as every person needs others and draws enrichment from the gifts and charisms of all.

Taken from pelorous.totallyplc.com