Saturday, March 13, 2021

Learning from Frodo’s Laetare Sunday

In The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, Frodo has the task of destroying the One Ring, an object of great evil, which the wizard Sauron seeks in order to use its power to subdue all of Middle-Earth. Towards the end of his quest, Frodo must attempt to go, with his faithful servant Sam and his treacherous guide Gollum, into Mordor, the land of Sauron himself, because the only place where the Ring can be destroyed is in the fiery mountain called the Cracks of Doom, standing in the very heart of Sauron’s realm.

In many ways, the end of Frodo’s journey into Mordor can be likened to an especially tough Lenten experience. Frodo has minimal food and drink, very little sleep and rest, and almost no comfort. He travels through bleak, dark landscapes, where he faces great trials of the spirit and the constant temptation to give in to evil desires.

But about halfway through all of this, Frodo gets a break. He meets Faramir, who takes him and Sam to a safe place, where he gives them good food and drink, some time to rest, and a comfortable place to sleep. They have a chance to assess their progress so far and think about their plans for the rest of their journey. During this interlude, Frodo gathers the strength to get going again.

If Frodo’s journey is like Lent, the respite in his journey can be likened to Laetare Sunday, which we are celebrating this weekend. Laetare Sunday is named after the Latin word for “rejoice.” We are rejoicing because our Lenten journey is halfway done. We are drawing closer and closer to the Easter joy of the Resurrection. Laetare Sunday is a good opportunity to assess our progress so far and to adjust our plans as needed so that we can carry on with our Lenten discipline. On Laetare Sunday, we can also give ourselves just a bit of a break so that we can gather enough strength to press on.

Frodo faced the hardest part of his journey at the very end, after his respite. Deprivation, temptation, grave spiritual danger. We too will face immense challenges – loss of focus, the desire to quit, the spiritual attacks of the enemy. So let us ground ourselves, on this Laetare Sunday. Let us celebrate how far we have come and ask the help of the Holy Spirit in going further.

In the story, the Elves give Frodo and Sam a waybread called Lembas, which sustains them during the trials of their quest. Lembas is their only food at the end of their journey, as they battle the very heart of darkness and defeat the greatest evil in Middle-Earth. Tolkien, a devout Catholic, had intended Lembas to be a symbol of the Eucharist, which sustains us as we face the vicissitudes of life. Just as Frodo and Sam relied on Lembas to help them through the final phase of their journey, let us turn to the Eucharist to sustain us in the remainder of Lent, as we seek to defeat all evil inclinations in our hearts and give ourselves completely to Christ.

Photo Credit: Lady Bird Johnson Trail in the Redwood Forest, Califronia. By Zoltan Abraham (c) 2013.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Palm Sunday Graces in the Urgent Care


A few days before Palm Sunday, I injured my left shoulder while exercising. By Saturday night, the pain was so bad that I could barely sleep, so on Sunday morning I called the consulting nurse, who recommended urgent care. Julie, my wife, took me in, early in the morning. This was not how I had hoped to start Holy Week. "Lord," I thought, "what more will you take away from me?" For over 20 years, the liturgies of Holy Week had been the focal point of the year for me. But this time, thanks to the virus, they were taken away. The liturgies, the celebrations, the family gatherings - all taken away. "And now, Lord," I thought, "will you take away the use and comfort of my body too?"

But then I thought, during Holy Week, we especially reflect on the suffering of Christ - his suffering for us. The best way to enter into Holy Week is to unite our suffering with his. Suffering has tremendous spiritual value. It is through suffering that we die to self and learn to love with a pure heart. We can also offer the spiritual value of our suffering up for others, as Christ offered up his suffering for us. Feeling completely miserable at the start of my Holy Week, I decided to offer up my suffering for healing in our families, for healing in the world. I added, "Lord, thank you for deeming me worthy to suffer for you."

Urgent care felt like a ghost town. I was told that there were other patients there, but I could see only medical staff. Julie had to stay in the waiting room, while I was escorted in. I was examined and X-rayed in a relatively short amount of time. As I waited for the doctor's diagnosis alone in an urgent care room, wearing a gown I could not tie in the back because of my bad arm, and an N95 mask that made breathing really hard, I continued to feel thoroughly miserable, but I kept offering up my suffering, and I focused on praying the Rosary.

When the doctor came, he ruled out major injuries, diagnosed the problem as an inflamed muscle, and prescribed some medications, as well as an at-home care routine. I was soon able to rejoin my wife in the waiting room. She was watching a livestream on her phone - the Palm Sunday Mass from St. Stephen the Martyr in Renton, the parish she attends. (I work at a different parish and I usually go to Mass there.)

We went over to the pharmacy, where, as we waited, I joined her in watching the Mass. The few others also waiting at the pharmacy, appropriately distanced from each other, didn't seem to mind that we had the volume on. I was able to see the Eucharistic Prayer. I prayed the Our Father with Julie. We exchanged the sign of peace through our obtrusive masks. We made Spiritual Communion together. In between these moments, I also picked up my medication. No one seemed to mind that even after picking up the prescription, we just stayed sitting there, watching the Mass.

Again, back on Ash Wednesday, this was not how I would have envisioned the start of my Holy Week. But the grace of God could still come to us through that small iPhone screen, and through the prayers the two of us made, gathered in our Lord's name in that pharmacy waiting room. Christ still found us. The Holy Spirit still entered our hearts. And as I made my Spiritual Communion, while holding in my hands a small bag containing medicine for my body, I knew I was receiving much more important medicine - medicine for the soul.



Photo Credit: Top photo: At the urgent care with Julie. Bottom photo: Our Palm Sunday display in quarantine. By Zoltan Abraham (c) 2020.

How to Lead a Prayer Meeting over Zoom



With most of our parishioners in quarantine, it is crucial that we reach out digitally to connect our community. In my role as Pastoral Assistant for Adult Faith Formation at a Catholic parish, I have used the Zoom app to facilitate RCIA, Bible Study, Book Club, Small Church Community meetings, and lots of prayer sessions. We have prayed together the Rosary, the Seven Sorrows Rosary, the Divine Mercy Chaplet, the Angelus, and the Regina Caeli. In this post, I would like to offer some suggestions for leading prayer over Zoom, on the basis of my experience.


Prepare using the following steps:

● To begin, familiarize yourself with the software. Do a practice session or two with a friend or colleague to get the hang of using the app, including the security features and the various ways that people can log in.

● Send out an invitation with detailed instructions for how to access the Zoom session. Let them know of the different ways they can participate, but emphasize that logging in through a laptop or tablet provides the best experience. Remind them that Zoom is a video conferencing software, so they and their immediate surroundings will be seen. (However, there is a way to add a digital background, for those who do not want to use their own home as a backdrop.) Also advise them that the Zoom application picks up ambient sounds, so any side conversations or background noises are likely to be heard.

● In your invitation, send out any prayer materials that you would want the participants to use during the session. Do not wait to give these out over the chat feature once the meeting has started, because some of the participants will not be able to access chat messages easily or at all given their device and their mode of logging in.

● Offer technical support. Many of your prospective participants will not be very tech-savvy. The idea of Zoom might be intimidating for them. However, luckily, Zoom is very easy to learn, even for those with very little mastery of technology. One way you can help is offer to walk people through setting up Zoom on their device. You could schedule individual practice sessions, where you guide them through the set-up over the phone, until they are able to log in to the session.

● You might run into a situation where someone has a video connection through a computer and can hear everything on their end, but might have no built in or external microphone through which they can speak to the group. In a case like this, the workaround is for them to establish the video connection, mute the audio on their computer, and then call in through one of the phone numbers associated with the session for the audio participation. In this situation, it is essential that they turn off the sound on their computer, otherwise you will get an echoing effect.

● If you are planning on repeated meetings, set up a distribution list through which you can send out the login information for your session. Even if the login information is the same as before, some participants will not be able to find your prior email and will need a new invite every time.

● Before the meeting, set up a nice, prayerful background for yourself or select an appropriate digital background. Make sure others who might be living in the same space know of your session, so they will not interrupt. Have everything near that you might need within easy reach, so you don't have to get up during the session, including, depending on the session you are leading, your Rosary, prayer guides, Bible, water, coffee, etc. I know from personal experience that it is easy to forget even the most basic and most frequently repeated prayers while leading a group, so I make sure that I have the text of all the prayers in front of me, including basic ones such as the Our Father and the Hail Mary.

● As far as possible, use a laptop to facilitate the meeting in order to have more options and control as you facilitate. Open any websites you might need, either on your laptop or on your phone. Open the various platforms through which people communicate with you, and have your phone in front of you. People might send you last minute messages asking for help to log in.


Start:

● Say a brief prayer before you start the session.

● Start the meeting on time.

● Welcome people by name as they log in.

● If some participants do not have video capability, read off the names of all the participants.

● Set the Zoom app to gallery view, which provides the best way to oversee the meeting. Encourage others to select gallery view as well.

● Click on the icon for managing participants, which will bring up a list of all those in the session as a sidebar on the right hand side. Having the list of participants displayed will help you later in managing the session.

● If someone has video capability but doesn't know how to turn on their video feed, you can manually send that person a video request, which can help them turn it on more easily.

● Some participants will require a certain amount of technical support as they are logging in, in order to fix some glitches or errors. Use your best judgment as to how much technical support you want to provide in the moment. On the one hand, you want to be inclusive. On the other hand, you don't want to hold the meeting up for too long to solve one person's problems. You might need to suggest politely that you can help the person in question troubleshoot the problem at a later time, after the session.


Divide Up the Prayer:

● Zoom does not lend itself to the traditional call and response style of prayer used in the Catholic Church and many other communities. For example, when praying the Rosary, we are accustomed to one person saying the first half of each prayer, and the others responding together. This will simply not work in Zoom, because the app cuts back and forth among the speakers, and if several people are speaking at once, we end up with a jumble of voices.

● The best is to divide up the prayer into sections and have each person say the words for that entire section. For example, when we pray the Rosary, the leader prays the introductory prayers, the closing prayers, and the reflection before each mystery. Then others take turns praying an entire decade, saying all of the prayers of the decade, all the way through. The rest of us either pray in silence or we mute ourselves so that we can say the response out loud, without creating a jumble of sounds.

● At this point, you can also put some prayer materials in the chat, but remember the caveat mentioned above, that not all participants will be able to access chat messages.


Monitor:

● As the prayer leader, it is very important for you to stay focused on everything happening in the session. Also, since most, if not all, of the participants can see your face, you should appear attentive.

● One way to manage audio as the prayer starts is to mute the whole group, and then those who are about to pray can unmute themselves. This approach is especially helpful if you have a lot of participants, with a lot of background noise. However, some people dislike being muted, but they are very good about remaining silent, so it's not an issue if they are not muted. Use your best judgment for each meeting as to whether or not you need to mute the whole group, except for the speaker.

● In any case, if not everyone is muted, be ready to mute people individually if their background suddenly becomes noisy, if they start having a side conversation with someone off screen at their location, or if they start saying the prayers out loud when someone else is leading. They can always unmute later.

● Some people might keep unmuting themselves, but you can block this by using the setting that prevents participants from unmuting. Once you mute someone, you, as the host, cannot unmute them. However, you can send them a request to unmute, which will override the other settings.

● Make sure people are unmuted when they start their section. You can remind them gently to unmute and can also send them an unmute request.

● During the session, keep an eye on the channels of communication through which people usually get in touch with you. Someone who has not yet logged in might send you a message five minutes in, asking for the link to the session. Or someone might text you to say they cannot participate but would like the group to pray for a specific intention.

● As mentioned above, sometimes people forget even the most basic prayers when praying in front of others. As people are praying, be prepared to help someone out if they forget how to say a given prayer. Don't embarrass them. Let them know that it has happened to you too.

● Sometimes the person leading at the moment develops technical difficulties or has to leave because of a problem they need to deal with on their end. Be prepared to jump in to finish off the section.

● If someone has to leave before the session is over, thank them for participating for as long as they could. If they just disappear suddenly, try to message them later to check in with them, just to see if everything is okay.

● If an emergency happens on your end, and you need to step away for a moment, ask someone familiar with the group process to take over for you for a minute. Just remember that they won't have the same controls over the Zoom application as you in your role as the host. If for some reaosn, you need to leave altogether, you can make someone else the host, so they will have full control over the session.


Check-in:

● I used to start my meetings with a check-in, but eventually we realized that it is better to do the check-in toward the end. That way, those who have just enough time to stay for the prayer can do so, and the rest of the group can take its time sharing at the end. I ask the participants the following questions: How are you doing spiritually, psychologically, and physically? What would you like us to pray for? Depending on the situation, I will add other questions, like: What did you do to celebrate Easter in your home? Many people are very lonely during this time of quarantine, and they need a forum to talk about themselves, especially their spiritual life. Do not begrudge participants the time it takes for everyone to check in. For many of them these few minutes might be the highlight of their whole day.

● I start the check-in by asking if anyone has to leave quickly, and I invite them to go first. For the rest of the participants present, I find it best to call on each participant according to the the order in which everyone appears on my screen. However, sometimes the order can shift a little, because Zoom puts people with a video feed first, then those with audio but no video turned on, and last those who are calling in through a phone connection, so if someone turns off their video even for a brief time, their position in the order of participants will change. To make sure that I didn't miss anyone, I ask at the end of the sharing if everyone has had a chance to share. I always share last myself.


Announcements:

Before you end the meeting, take a moment to make announcements about upcoming opportunities that might be relevant to your group. Invite others to make similar announcements too.


Farewell:

Thank everyone for participating and say good-bye. I usually say something along the lines of: "Thank you all for coming. God bless you. See you next time!" I give people some time to say good-bye. In these last moments, everyone is talking at the same time, with the inevitable jumble of sounds, but it is okay. After waiting a few moments, I click the option for ending the meeting, and we are done.


Follow-up:

After the meeting, follow-up with any participants you offered to help with technical difficulties. If you promised to send out some information or certain resources, make sure you do so. If someone had to leave abruptly, reach out to them. If someone seemed especially distressed, get in touch to see if they need any help. Continue your prayer by praying for all the participants in your session.


Photo Credit: Our Lady over the Earth. Source unknown. This image has circulated widely on the Internet.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Holy Week in Quarantine: How to Celebrate the Holiest Season of the Church in Our Homes



The world is about to enter the most surreal Holy Week in living memory. Public Masses are cancelled. Catholic Churches are closed, some entirely, some open only for private prayer for a few hours. But being in quarantine does not mean that we cannot enter into the spirit of Holy Week. Below are some practical suggestions for observing Holy Week in the home.

Livestream: As far as possible, livestream the liturgies of Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. So many churches are livestreaming now, that you will have many to pick from, but preferably watch the broadcast offered by your home parish or diocese or the one from the Vatican. Keep all of these days holy. Don't do any menial work. Don't engage in any form of entertainment that would contradict the spirit of these days. Make sure to observe the fast and abstinence on Good Friday. Traditional, Holy Saturday was also kept as a day of fasting until the Easter Vigil, so you should consider making this a day of self-denial too. Dress up for watching the livestreams as if you were attending the liturgies in person. Participate as fully as you can by singing, saying the responses, and doing the physical gestures.

At Communion time, make an act of Spiritual Communion using the beloved prayer by St. Alphonsus Liguori:

My Jesus, I believe that you are present in the most holy Eucharist. I love you above all things, and I desire to receive you into my soul. Since I cannot at this moment receive you sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart. I embrace you as if you were already there and unite myself wholly to you. Never permit me to be separated from you. Amen

If for some reason you are not able to livestream the liturgies, I would still encourage you to set aside a special time each day for Spiritual Communion. You may wish to follow my Guide to Spiritual Communion in the Home as you do so.

Pray: As we celebrate the holiest time of the year quarantined in our homes, set extra time aside for prayer. Pray the Rosary and the Divine Mercy Chaplet every day. Read the Scriptures. Pray especially for the Church to emerge stronger from this time of trial, pray for clergy who are shepherding us through this crisis, for the faithful longing for the sacraments, for the elect and candidates who have been preparing to join the Church at Easter but who will have to wait until a future time.

Making Each Day Special: Unfortunately most of the liturgies that will be livestreamed will not be showing some of the special aspects of the Holy Week liturgies. So perhaps we can recreate some of these special liturgical elements in our homes as best we can. Below are some suggestions for how we can do so, as well as some other ways we can enter into the spirit of Holy Week. Please remember that these suggestion are not meant to be in place of watching the livestreamed liturgies and making a Spiritual Communion, but in addition to them.

Palm Sunday: Place a branch over your door or somewhere prominent on the front of your house. If you don't have palm branches at home, use any branch you can find. Since you can't participate in a procession with palm branches, read the first Gospel of Palm Sunday out loud, then have a small procession with branches of any kind inside your home, while listening to Hosanna songs from YouTube (see suggestions below).

Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of Holy Week: If you are able to make a grocery run on one of these days, use it to pick up food and drink for your Easter celebration too. If you don't have any Easter decorations, you could most likely pick some up during the grocery run. Or you could use the first days of holy week to make Easter decorations to be displayed on Easter Sunday. Especially if you have kids, quarantine can be a good opportunity for crafts.

The beginning of Holy Week is also a great time to dye Easter eggs. Easter eggs may seem like a secular accretion, but they have Catholic roots. The early Church saw hardboiled eggs as a symbol of the Resurrection, in that the egg coming out of the shell can metaphorically point toward Christ coming out of the tomb. The custom of dying Easter eggs goes back to the Middle Ages, when our Catholic forebearers maintained an extremely strict diet, in which they gave up all animal products, including eggs. For most of Lent, they didn't process the eggs their chickens laid, but as they got closer to Easter, they could hard boil the eggs and set them aside for eating after the Lenten fast was over. During this time of anticipation, they started decorating the eggs, eventually giving rise of a whole new artform.

Holy Thursday: Since the foot washing ceremony is likely to be omitted from the livestreamed liturgies, we can do our own foot washing at home. Married couples could wash each other's feet. Parents could wash their children's feet and vice versa. Not everyone feels comfortable washing someone else's feet, and that is fine. Only those who want to should take part. Also, this foot washing doesn't have to be with soap and abundant water. It can be done symbolically, like at church, by pouring a little bit of water and then toweling it off.

Holy Thursday Mass is also traditionally followed by Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Though the Holy Thursday Adoration will not be available, many churches may still be open for private prayer. If possible, try to make it to a Catholic Church for private prayer in front of the Tabernacle (while observing the social distancing requirements of the area where you live). If you cannot go to a church, look for livestreamed Adoration on the Internet, which is available on various websites (see some suggestions below). Alternatively, spend some time in quiet meditation uniting yourself with our Lord in the Eucharist. Pray the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary by yourself or with your family.

Good Friday: Since we cannot participate in the Adoration of the Holy Cross at church, we can do so in our home. Create a beautiful prayer table in your home, and place the most prominent crucifix you have in the middle. Pray the Stations of the Cross, and then take turns making acts of reverence toward the crucifix.

Holy Saturday: We will not be able to experience the Easter fire and praying in a sea of lit tapers at church this year. But we can try to approximate the experience at home. Gather all the candles you have, whether real or electrical, and spread them out in your living-room in places where you can safely light them. Prepare a home altar in this room. A table, a stand, the top of a dresser, or some other suitable surface works well. Use a nice tablecloth and incorporate some or all of the following: Your Bible, a crucifix, a rosary, sacred pictures and statues, holy water, blessed salt, candles, incense burner, flowers or potted plants, and other appropriate natural objects that can serve as decoration.

Pick one candle that could serve as your Easter candle. If you have a safe place for a fire (in your yard or in your fireplace) light a fire and gather around it. Say some prayers, either from the text of the Mass, or some other prayers, like the Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary. Light your Easter candle from this fire. Then move to your living-room (make sure any outdoor fires are safely extinguished first), and light all the candles you have placed there. Turn off any other lights. Listen to a recording of the Exultet, the Easter Proclamation, from YouTube (see some suggestions below).

Easter Sunday: Put out all your Easter decorations. Display the Easter Eggs you dyed too. Make a festive meal and bring out your best china. Dress in your finest clothes, as if you were going to Easter Mass. During the day listen to alleluia songs (see some suggestions below).

Easter Week: The week of Easter, known in the Church as the Octave of Easter, has traditionally been a time of ongoing celebration. Unfortunately, secular culture has crowded out the sense of the sacred from Easter week. But being in quarantine is a great time to reclaim the holiness of this season. During Easter week, continue to livestream Mass each day. Continue to set aside extra time for prayer, especially the Rosary. Keep using your best china and make your meals as festive as possible.

In fact, the Easter Season continues for seven weeks. Please see my article Seven Weeks of Easter: Suggestions for a Catholic Celebration of Eastertide for how you can continue the festivities until Pentecost.

Post Pictures on Social Media: Take pictures of your celebrations, your decorations, your festive meals, and of your family in your Easter best and post the pictures on social media. Let the world know that you are still celebrating, despite everything. If your parish has social media accounts, try tagging them. You could also ask the people maintaining the parish social media profiles to post pictures sent in by parishioners of their celebrations or to create a hashtag to use for tagging.

Support Your Parish Financially: You might say that this particular suggestion is self-serving because I work for a parish. But the reality is that many churches rely heavily on the Easter donations to meet their financial obligations. During this time of quarantine, many parishes are doing all they can to reach out to their parishioners through digital media, such as livestreamed Masses and Zoom meetings. Priests are also making themselves available for Confession and anointing of the sick to the extent they are allowed by the local quarantine laws in effect. Consider donating to your parish electronically or by mailing in your Easter donation. Consider continuing regular donations, since your parish still has bills to pay.

As this unprecedented time of Easter unfolds, let us pray for one another, and let us entrust ourselves to our Holy Mother, the Queen of Peace.


Sources:

The following article and podcast served as the inspiration for this post:

A beautiful idea for Palm Sunday

How to Do Digital Easter by Divine Renovation


Resources:

Some Hosanna Music from YouTube (there is much more!):

Hosanna in the Highest

Sing Hosanna - Give Me Oil In My Lamp

Hosanna - A Palm Sunday Song


Online Perpetual Eucharistic Adoration


The Exultet in Latin

The Exultet in English


Alleluia Music from YouTube (there is much more!):

Sing Hallelujah

Händel Messiah - Hallelujah Chorus

Alleluia - Mormon Tabernacle Choir


Photo Credit: Christ the Redeemer Statue in Brazil lit up with the flags of the nations as a part of prayers for deliverance from the coronavirus. Photographer unknown. Images such as this are circulating on the Interent.


Friday, November 29, 2019

Otherwordly Peace and Vibrant Faith Characterize Medjugorje

I recently led a pilgrimage to Medjugorje with 30 participants. In Medjugorje, the Virgin Mary is known as the Kraljica Mira - or the Queen of Peace. "Peace" is the word I would most use to characterize Medjugorje. However, the word falls short, because human language cannot express the deep, all-pervading sense of peace that reigns in that town.

The life of Medjugorje revolves entirely around Catholic sacraments and devotions. Daily Mass is held in multiple languages, including English, Polish, Italian, French, and German. At the evening international Mass, simultaneous translation is provided in various languages via radio. The multitudes of pilgrim groups also say Mass in their own languages. The two main venues for the liturgies are St. James Church in the center of town and the open air chapel behind the church. The church building is not adequate to hold the crush of people seeking to participate, so most Masses are packed beyond capacity, with not even standing room left. The open air seating can hold about 5,000 people, and the seats are often filled.

5,000 people for just one of the many daily Masses... 5,000 people praying the Rosary together on a weeknight... 5,000 people worshipping together in a guided Holy Hour for Adoration... 5,000 pilgrims venerating the Holy Cross in unison on a Friday... Multitudes of priests sit for hours to hear the confessions for pilgrims in various languages. In fact, Medjugorje is know as the Confession capital of the world. What is more, many of the pilgrims here are very young, in contrast to other pilgrimages sites I have visited, like Lourdes and Fatima, where the pilgrims tend to be much older.

At the edge of town stands what the locals call Apparition Hill. According to the visionaries, it was on this hill that the Blessed Virgin Mary started appearing in 1981. Today, a statue of the Queen of Peace, erected by the Korean Catholic community, marks the spot where the first seven apparitions are said to have occurred. The Vatican Commission tasked with examining the Medjugorje phenomenon has recently recommended that the Church approve the first seven apparitions as authentic, while continuing to study the claims of the ongoing apparitions.

Pilgrims ascend Apparition Hill day and night, in groups or alone, to pray. The hill is covered with jagged rocks and prickly bushes, but no path has been made, except by the feet of the 40 million or so pilgrims who have climbed to the spot where the statue of the Queen of Peace stands today. The locals have erected panels depicting the mysteries of the Rosary to aid the pilgrims in their prayers. Some lights have also been added to help pilgrims with their nighttime prayer walks. Day and night, the Rosary, along with many other prayers, is being said on this hill - and elsewhere too in Medjugorje. In fact, the only challenge in praying the Rosary in public in this town is that your prayer is likely to get mixed up with the prayers of two or three other groups who might also be praying out loud near you.

Multitudes of pilgrims also ascend Cross Mountain, where, on a much higher spot, stands a concrete cross that the locals built back in the 1930's. Today, the cross is illuminated at night, and it is the most prominent landmark in the area. As many have remarked, the arrangement of the cross versus the statue on Apparition Hill is very much consistent with Marian theology. Mary is prominent, but she is not the most prominent - she points to the Holy Cross, which is the source of our salvation.

As on Apparition Hill, no path has been made on Cross Mountain, except by the feet of the pilgrims. Multitudes climb the steep mountain, ascending up the harsh rocks amid the prickly bushes. Many do so barefoot as an extra penance. Panels depicting the Stations of the Cross have been placed along the way to aid the pilgrims in their prayer. Thousands upon thousands pray the Stations as they make their way up toward the great cross above.

We do not know what the ultimate decision of the Catholic Church will be with regard to Medjugorje. We certainly cannot expect the Church to give full approval to the phenomenon while there are still claims of ongoing visions by the visionaries. Three of the six claim to see the Virgin Mary daily. The other three claim to see her on some specific dates designated by her. If the Church were to issue a fully positive ruling on Medjugorje, she could only do so after the claims of the visions have stopped and everything can be investigated as a historical event, rather than as an ongoing phenomenon. However, I think it is significant that after 38 years, the Vatican has not issued a negative ruling regarding the site. By contrast, Rome has not hesitated to condemn some other claims of ongoing apparitions in other parts of the world.

Recently, the Vatican has also authorized official parish and diocesan pilgrimages to the site. An annual youth festival is held every year at the end of July in Medjugorje, attracting about 70,000 youths from around the world. This past summer, senior Vatican officials attended the festival and participated in the prayers. Under the guidance of Archbishop Henryk Hoser, who serves as the Apostolic Visitor to Medjugorje, the Vatican is also making plans to expand the religious infrastructure of the town to accommodate pilgrims better. Medjugorje badly needs a covered church space that can accommodate well over 5,000 people at a time.

Whatever, the final decision of the Church will be with regard to the claims of apparitions in Medjugorje, one thing seems clear. The Catholic faith is truly alive here. Millions have had their hearts set on fire for Christ through the experience of Medjugorje. Multitudes have been converted to the Catholic faith here - including my wife, Julie. Many Catholics have felt their first call to religious life or the priesthood in Medjugorje. A number of well-documented physical healings have also taken place.

According to the visionaries of Medjugorje, the Virgin Mary has asked us to commit to five spiritual practices. These are usually called the Five Stones, after the five stones that David had in order to fight Goliath. The Five Stones are: 1) Prayer: Pray from the heart, especially the daily recitation of the Rosary. 2) Eucharist: Attend Mass frequently, preferably daily. Spend time with our Lord in Adoration as often as possible. 3) Fasting: Fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, preferably on bread and water only. 4) Confession: Go to Confession once a month. 5) The Holy Bible: Read the Scriptures daily.

Regardless of the authenticity of the apparitions of Medjugorje, the Five Stones constitute sound advice. These practices are at the very heart of Catholic spiritual life. Having spent a week in Medjugorje, I feel a renewed desire to commit to these practices, and I will encourage my fellow pilgrims to do the same.

Mary, Queen of Peace, pray for us!

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Help Change the Internet with the Sacred Heart Social Media Challenge


June is the month of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, since the Feast of the Sacred Heart, held 19 days after Pentecost on a Friday, almost always falls in the month of June. Additionally, in the post-Vatican II calendar, the Feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary is observed the next day, on a Saturday.

In order to celebrate June as the month the Sacred Heart, I would recommend the following:

1) Prominently display images of the Sacred Heart and the Immaculate Heart in your home. Highlight them with flowers and candles. You can use plastic flowers and electric votive lights, if real flowers and live candles are not practical.

2) Consecrate yourself to the Sacred Heart and to the Immaculate Heart every day during June. Alternatively, you could consecrate yourself to the Sacred Heart on odd days of the month and to the Immaculate Heart on even days.

Prayer of Consecration to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Prayer of Consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Blessed Virgin Mary.

3) Formally enthrone the Sacred Heart in your home. Enthronement to the Sacred Heart brings your home and family under the authority of Christ and brings with it an outpouring of graces for your family.

Learn more about Enthronement to the Sacred Heart.

4) Spread awareness about the Sacred Heart by taking part in the Sacred Heart Social Media Challenge. Every day of June, post a different picture of the Sacred Heart and the Immaculate Heart on your various social media platforms. Alternatively, you could post a picture of the Sacred Heart on odd days of the month and a picture of the Immaculate Heart of Mary on even days.

5) For a bit of fun, eat heart-shaped sweets during the month of June. If you followed my suggestion from my Valentine's Day post, you froze heart-shaped candies in February, which you can unfreeze now. Or you can just bake heart-shaped cookies or other pastries. Have some creative fun and celebrate.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

What Catholics Can Learn from the Game of Thrones


Game of Thrones has been the biggest pop culture phenomenon in recent memory. The HBO TV series, based on the bestselling novels A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin, captivated the imagination of audiences throughout the world for the better part of a decade. Regrettably, however, Game of Thrones is also a profoundly un-Christian story. Beyond the pervasive vulgarity, the gratuitous and often deeply disturbing sex, and the recurring shock value horror violence, the story presents a relentlessly pessimistic, cynical, even nihilistic view of life, of human nature, and of the world we inhabit. The supernatural world, moreover, as envisioned by the show, is at best amoral, but, one might say, is perhaps even more cruel than the world of humans and certainly offers no hope after the harsh vicissitudes of earthly existence. In fact, in the final episode, the show point blank denies the existence of an afterlife and suggests that the best humans can hope for beyond death is oblivion.

And yet, I must confess that I have spent many hours reading the books, watching the TV show, following online commentaries, and discussing the story with friends. Why? Because the story, for the most part, has been a well-told tale, narrated with great skill and compelling strength. Stories draw people in. The Game of Thrones phenomenon illustrates the immense power of a well-crafted narrative. Tyrion, one of the main characters of the story, puts it well in the grand finale of the show: "What unites people? Armies? Gold? Flags?... Stories. There is nothing in the world more powerful than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it." At the heart of the worldwide popularity of Game of Thrones was the strength of the initial narrative structure. As fans felt that the quality of the storytelling declined over time, they complained bitterly. In fact, over one million fans signed a petition for HBO to remake the final season of the show, because they felt dissatisfied with the conclusion. Such is the power of narratives.

As a Catholic observer of the Game of Thrones phenomenon, I have always had a love-hate relationship with the story. I have loved the often masterful telling of the tale – but I have hated the forceful presentation of values and ideas so deeply contrary to my own. How, one might ask, can the Catholic Church counter such a popular cultural phenomenon? The answer, I think, is articulated in another movie, the classic film Ben-Hur, where Messala states: "You ask how to fight an idea. Well, I'll tell you how: with another idea."

The Catholic Church possesses the greatest story ever told, the story of Christ. For centuries, we have proclaimed this story boldly, persuading much of the world of its truth. Over the centuries, our story has inspired some of the greatest creative talents of humanity – composers, artists, architects, poets, and writers. Western Civilization was built upon the Catholic narrative and the Catholic culture that arose from that powerful story.

But in recent decades, our narrative fervor has abated. We seem little interested today in suffusing the broader culture with our story. Many of our own theologians have made a career out of doubting and deconstructing our own narrative. Our church art, moreover, has, all too often, become abstract and grotesque, possessing none of the beauty through which the sacred art of past generations could lift the faithful's soul up to God. Likewise, our church buildings, whose beauty once reflected the splendor of God's glory, now often feel more like meeting halls or parking garages than sacred spaces where we can encounter the Divine. Our once ethereal church music has, very often, been replaced with bland melodies, with even more bland lyrics, that tell very little of our magnificent story.

We no longer have a Catholic culture built upon our narrative. Instead, our lives are suffused by the culture of the world. The fact that a post-Christian story written by the ex-Catholic George R.R. Martin has resonated so powerfully with our increasingly post-Christian society is an apt metaphor for how far our culture has fallen from its foundations and for how far we as Catholics have strayed from the proclamation of our own story.

But it need not be so. We Catholics need only to remember our history – we need only to recall that we do indeed possess the greatest story ever told. We need to keep telling that story to ourselves, to each other, to new generations, and to the whole world. Let us reclaim our zeal for proclaiming the story of Christ. Let us create new art, architecture, music, poetry, and books that express the pathos, beauty, magnificence, and profound hope of our story.

Let us also foster the crafting of fictional narratives rooted in the power of our Catholic story. The immense popularity of The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien shows the impact that Catholic fiction can have upon the world. Let us foster the Catholic novel, supporting and encouraging Catholic writers, young and old. Let us invest in Catholic filmmaking. The great success of recent Christian films shows the hunger our culture has for wholesome storytelling. Let us respond by creating Catholic movies to engage our society.

The story that can change hearts, that can save souls, that can transform the world has been entrusted to us. We must, therefore, proclaim it with fidelity, courage, enthusiasm, and love.


Photo Credit: Promotional photo for the Game of Thrones series.