Kyrie eleison

Today I will share with you a loosely strung set of quotes that came to mind as I prayed over this morning’s Gospel…

Taken from classicalchristianity.com

Today’s Mass readings turn our minds to Lenten almsgiving. Etymologically, the word “alms” comes from the Greek word eleos, which means “pity, mercy.” So, to give alms is to give mercy to those who need mercy — and mercy, simply put, is love encountering human misery and overcoming it. Think of the Latin word for mercy, misericordiamiser, “misery,” and cordia, “of the heart.”   Mercy is both a response to human misery and the compassionate empathy of one’s heart toward the suffering of another. As St. Thomas Aquinas would say, mercy, to be fully virtuous, must be affective and effective, moving me with emotive empathy and toward effective action.

We also know what Jesus says in the Beatitudes about mercy-givers:

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

Today’s Gospel reveals the shocking truth that our salvation, the gift of God’s undeserved mercy, is itself dependent on the quality of our mercy-giving to the deserving and undeserving (cf Luke 6:35).

On the “undeserving” recipients of alms, St. John Chrysostom famously said,

You must not demand an audit of a person’s life – just correct the poverty and supply the need (Homilies on 1 Corinthians 21.5).

Shakespeare says of mercy in The Merchant of Venice:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes

St. John Bosco captures this saving dynamic when he says,

An effective but often neglected means of gaining Paradise is almsgiving. By almsgiving I mean any work of mercy exercised toward one’s neighbor for the love of God.

Along those same lines Dr. Nathan Eubank, a biblical scholar and colleague of mine at the seminary, once made this comment to me:

If one were to do even a cursory read of the Synoptic Gospels [Matthew, Mark, Luke], one would get the immediate impression that we are saved by giving alms.

Saving alms. The hands of the needy are the gift-receiving altar of God.

We are not saved by mere faith, but saved by merciful faith that stoops down to the needy and suffering. St. James says it with sharp clarity:

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

Clearly for James saving works=almsgiving, good Jew that he is. Sounds like a Hebrew prophet or some such:

Is this not, rather, the fast that I choose:
releasing those bound unjustly,
untying the thongs of the yoke;
Setting free the oppressed,
breaking off every yoke?
Is it not sharing your bread with the hungry,
bringing the afflicted and the homeless into your house;
Clothing the naked when you see them,
and not turning your back on your own flesh?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your wound shall quickly be healed;
Your vindication shall go before you,
and the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. — Isaiah 58:7-8

Or maybe a Hebrew sage:

Give to God as he gives to you with a good eye and a large hand; for he who gives to the poor, lends to God; for who is a repayer if not he? For he is God who repays and he will repay you ten thousand times the thousand.” — Sirach 35:10–11

Again, St. Augustine comments on almsgiving,

Study the money lender’s methods. He wants to give modestly and get back with profit; you do the same. Give a little and receive on a grand scale. Look how your interest is mounting up! Give temporal wealth and claim eternal interest, give the earth and gain heaven. ‘Whom shall I give it to?’ did you ask? The Lord himself comes forward (in the form of the poor person) to ask you for a loan, he who forbade you to be a usurer. Listen to the Scripture telling you how to make the Lord your debtor: ‘Anyone who gives alms to the poor is lending to the Lord.’

A moral theology professor I had in grad school once said on our Catholic social ethics class,

In Scripture, those are most like God who choose to override the natural slouch of fallen humanity toward self-interest in order to lift up the fallen; or who resist the sloth that prevents us from exiting our comfort zones and attending with mercy to the more unpleasant realities of human suffering and need. God is most at home among the homeless, building them homes; among orphans, adopting them; among widows, taking them into his care. And he’s always looking for laborers to join his cause.

St. John of the Cross says that one who is possessed with divine charity senses the sweet aroma of Christ in the stench of the sick or the poor, while those who are attached to pleasant odors are incapable of allowing the love of God to fully enter and free them to love as God loves, i.e. with a merciful love.

Mercy, which Aquinas argues is God’s greatest attribute, is therefore the supreme manner for human beings to image God. As such, being merciful is the truest use of human freedom and the greatest sign that we are truly free. I think here of the words of holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl:

There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress. We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread… Dostoevsky said once, ‘There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.’ These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom — which cannot be taken away — that makes life meaningful and purposeful.

A volunteer at Good News Ministries, an ecumenical outreach to the poor and needy in Tallahassee, once said to me:

I’m always asking God questions about the suffering I encounter every day. But there’s one question you will never find me asking Him: ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’

Amen.

Samuel Aranda‘s winning image of a woman in a niqab comforting an injured man in Yemen. Taken from dvafoto.com

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

When We Close Our Wombs

“The Visitation,” 15th century, Heimsuchung von Maria und Elisabeth. Taken from unbornwordoftheday.files.wordpress.com

The biological nature of each person is untouchable in the sense that it is constitutive of the personal identity of the individual throughout the whole course of his history. Each human person, in his absolutely unique singularity, is constituted not only by his spirit, but by his body as well. Thus, in the body and through the body, one touches the person himself in his concrete reality. To respect the dignity of man, consequently, amounts to safeguarding this identity of the man as “one in body and soul,” as Vatican Council II says. — St. John Paul II

I have a dear friend in Lafayette, Louisiana, Dr. Damon Cudihy, who is a radical witness of the lay vocation lived out under the form of husband, father and Ob/Gyn. He demonstrates daily how the synthesis of faith and life is not only possible but beautiful to behold, though its beauty has, for him, only been wrought by a steady dose of costly grace. I admire his kindness, his work ethic, his brilliant mind, his even-handedness and his joyful love of Christ, the Church and the people who cross his path every day. You can see more about his work here.

My main reason for referring to Dr. Cudihy today is to bring to your attention his recent response to an article by a theologically degreed Protestant Christian, Suzanne Burden, called, When We Close Our Wombs (see here). Her main point is summed up in the article’s final paragraph:

…most women will face many choices regarding their reproductive system in their lifetime, and many will face a decision about whether to end their fertility for health or personal reasons. Whatever choices we make, we should do so with reverence, care and the support of spiritual companions. As we do, we agree that our reproductive systems are a good gift from God. And we affirm that decisions about them should be filled with intention, care and the Christian hope that God will continue to bear his good fruit in us whether our wombs are open or closed.

When I read it, I wrote Damon and said, “Would you comment on this?” He graciously did and, though his comment has not yet (as I write this post) been approved for viewing on the “her-meneutics” website where the article first appeared, I thought I would post it here for your edification.

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Dear Suzanne,

My heart goes out to you as it does to all my patients who suffer with infertility and the heart wrenching decisions to undergo procedures which result in their permanent sterility.  As a gynecologist who has dedicated his professional life to addressing the problems of female infertility, painful periods, and heavy menstrual bleeding, and as a fellow Christian, I’d like to offer a unique perspective for both you and your readers.

The symptoms of infertility and pelvic pain (menstrual-associated or otherwise) are the most common symptoms of endometriosis.  Despite the fact that this condition is typically treated with birth control pills, the best treatment for the pain and the only treatment that restores (or preserves) fertility is surgical removal of the endometriosis.  Unfortunately, however, in the age of using birth control pills as a cure all and of IVF as the answer to infertility, fewer and fewer physicians are able to provide a more specific diagnosis and treatment plan that actually corrects the abnormality.

Your situation sounds very similar to many patients I’ve treated over the years.  More specifically, the combination of tubal sterilization and endometrial ablation.  Since I don’t perform either of these procedures, they became my patients when they experienced a fairly common condition resulting from this combination known as “Post-ablation tubal sterilization syndrome (PATSS).”  This condition of intense menstrual pain results of blood becoming trapped in the tubes because of the sterilization occlusion on one end and the scarring of the uterus (caused by the ablation) on the other.  The best treatment for these situations is usually a hysterectomy (often, in retrospect, would have been the best treatment to begin with).

One of the medical principles I strive to follow is that of “first, do no harm.” Accordingly, when surgery is necessary, I do everything possible to do so in as minimally invasive a manner as possible. (Fortunately, modern surgical technology has allowed the once morbid hysterectomy to become one where the recovery period is much quicker and less painful.)  Because fertility is a healthy condition, I would be causing unnecessary harm to a woman’s body if I were to perform a direct sterilization.  By direct, I mean a procedure where the sole purpose is destroy her capacity to conceive children.  When I perform a hysterectomy for a genuine problem (i.e. intense pain, excessive bleeding, etc), the sterility that results is indirect—one that we accept as an unavoidable (yet accepted) consequence to the best treatment for her medical problem (diseased uterus, etc).  If a woman is in a situation where a future pregnancy in unadvisable for whatever reason, there are much better ways to avoid pregnancy that maintain a more complete respect for the woman’s body as created in the image of God.  For married women, this simply entails learning one of the various methods of Fertility Awareness (often derisively called the “rhythm method” by those unfamiliar with its actual effectiveness).  Among all creation, only humans have been granted free will.  Regarding sexual intimacy, this is why mutual consent is universally recognized as absolutely essential–even among atheists.  Using a Fertility Awareness Method to avoid pregnancy is as simple as learning to identify the fertile days in a woman’s cycle and avoiding marital intercourse on those days.  While at first this may sound like an excessively scrupulous method to obtain the same end, if we thoughtfully and prayerfully reflect on it further we can see why this is the best way.

Sadly, a contraceptive mentality as contributed to our increasingly hedonistic society.  When we fail to recognize children as the supreme gift of marriage, we see them instead as inconveniences, burdens, health hazards, or even enemies to be avoided at all costs.  No wonder then that our federal government has now codified law that literally regards fertility as a disease—one that all insurances must pay to cure. (On the contrary, the legitimate problem of infertility is never covered by insurance.)  Since we are a people following the one who is “the Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6), we must be careful that our actions always reflect a reverence for our “bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit.” (1Cor 6:19).  In doing so we give witness to God’s plan for marriage and the essential good of children—even when, paradoxically, we suffer the cross of infertility.  Since we believe that God designed our bodies and commands us to “be fertile and multiply,” we should joyfully accept children as a gift from the Most High and should be careful that any means used to avoid or postpone new life is completely respectful of our bodily integrity and the truth that openness to children is an essential purpose of marriage.

In Christ,

Damon Cudihy, MD

 

Texting your sins

Taken from bryanterrill.com

Recently my wife and I watched a documentary with our children on texting and driving, From One Second To The Next, that told the heart-wrenching stories of victims and victimizers whose lives were turned upside down by one person’s decision to text while driving. It withered any temptation I may have had in me.

It reminded me of a Sunday homily I heard several years ago by a priest who spoke of what he called “the sins I am surprised I never hear confessed.” It was a sobering homily.

First, he mentioned the need to consider more carefully “sins of omission,” meaning sins that emerge from “failing to do what we can or ought” when circumstances call for action. For example, he said, sometimes we are obliged to act or speak out against maligning gossip shared in our presence, but we fail to through cowardice, laziness, desire for others’ approval or some other self-interested rationale. In such circumstances, he argued, “it is Christ whom we deny or fail to shield, as He is present in every person unjustly accused or maligned; and He awaits members of His Body — us! — to come to His defense. He identifies Himself with these ‘least’ and takes very personally what is done, or not done, for those so wronged. That’s if we are to take really seriously the implications of Matthew 25. Those judged unto damnation are judged for sins of omission.”

Then the priest took a surprising direction in his homily, one I have heard preached neither before nor after that day. It stung me. He said,

But one of the most surprising omissions in Confession is the sin of breaking traffic laws, reckless driving. Did you know the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, ” Those incur grave guilt who, by drunkenness or a love of speed, endanger their own and others’ safety on the road, at sea, or in the air”? Grave guilt! Let me ask you — but don’t raise your hand! — how many of you have sped, had too much alcohol and gotten behind a wheel, texted while you were driving, blown through stop lights or done other irresponsible things while driving? This is, the Church tells us, a grave matter, “graviter” in Catechism’s Latin — which means it’s grave matter, the matter for mortal sin. And the Catechism takes it so seriously that it places this consideration under the 5th commandment, Thou shalt not kill. If Jesus says to grow angry with your brother in your heart is already murder, the Catechism adds that reckless driving, even if you don’t get caught, can be considered already murder.

I beg you as your father in Christ to respect life by driving safely, to be a witness to temperance and justice, and call others to be accountable and responsible. Maybe put a religious bumper sticker or “respect life” sticker on your car so that you make yourself more self-conscious of being a witness to others of the faith, of Christ, of being consistent in your reverence for life.

There’s a bumper sticker I’ve seen — “honk if you love Jesus, text if you want to meet him” [congregation laughter] — but I would add, on a much more serious note, that I personally would not want my last deed before entering the presence of Christ the Judge to be the violation of the 5th commandment.

Go to Confession if you haven’t and unburden your sins before our merciful Lord, the Lover of life…

I know I sure had to.