Showing posts with label Blessed Virgin Mary. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Blessed Virgin Mary. Show all posts

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!

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Fire, the Lampstand, and Our Lady of All Nations: A Reflection on Notre Dame


On the morning of Monday, April 15, I felt a strong desire to pray the Seven Sorrows Rosary, a special prayer reflecting on the sorrows of the Virgin Mary. I try to pray this prayer every day, and I was planning to say it later in the day, but my desire was growing to start it right away. Just then, I glanced at my Twitter feed and saw that Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was on fire. I quickly looked at news sources and watched in utter horror as the top of the building was engulfed in flames.

No words could describe my grief as I was witnessing what seemed like the destruction of one of the most magnificent jewels of Western civilization. So much history, culture, art, and spirituality has been connected with and has been symbolized by this one building, dating back to the 12th century. For a while, I could not stop watching the livestream of the conflagration, listening intently for the slightest bit of news. But in time, I turned off the sound and started to pray the Seven Sorrows Rosary, while still watching the raging fire devouring the resplendent building. At that time, it seemed that the roof had collapsed, and the interior was being completely annihilated by the flames.

My grief only grew during the day. In January, I had the good fortune of being able to visit Notre Dame on a long layover in Paris. I attended morning Mass and toured the building, taking many pictures of the priceless artwork. I climbed the north tower, where I could see the famed gargoyles from up close and could admire a panoramic view of Paris. But now this venerable old building of marvels seemed to be on the brink of complete collapse.

As I watched the livestream, I could not help but think that the conflagration was a metaphor for the state of the Catholic Church in much of the Western world today. We are facing the greatest crisis in Catholicism since the Protestant Reformation. In fact, the scale of the decline is arguably far greater than during the 16th century. In many formerly flourishing Catholic areas the Church is little more now than a burnt out shell.

A chilling line from the Book of Revelation haunted me during the day. Christ says to the Ephesians: "Yet I hold this against you: you have lost the love you had at first. Realize how far you have fallen. Repent, and do the works you did at first. Otherwise, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent." (Revelation 2:4-5)

The burning of this awe-inspiring gem of Western history also reminded me of the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien. In so many passages, he depicts the fallen buildings and monuments of a once great society that has collapsed due to its own corruption or has been destroyed by enemies. The conflagration of Notre Dame seemed to me like an apt metaphor for the fall of Western civilization which we are witnessing today.

We have abandoned our roots, we have turned away from the blessings that once gave us greatness. We have forgotten how to build a magnificent world and how to maintain it. The West is now collapsing. We are falling. We are becoming the burnt out shell of our former glory. Such were my gloomy thoughts as the fires raged in Notre Dame Cathedral.

But as the day unfolded, I found hope unexpectedly. As the heroic firefighters subdued the flames, good news started to emerge. The interior, which initially seemed to have been completely destroyed, turned out to have been relatively untouched by the devastation. The gilded cross above the main altar shone bright in the initial pictures of the interior. The beautiful statue of the Pieta, Our Lady of Sorrows, situated under the cross, her arms open, also survived intact.

If the fire was a metaphor for the state of Catholicism in the West, then the miraculous survival of so much beauty inside was perhaps a metaphor that all is not yet lost. The Catholic Church, though bruised and battered in the West, has not yet fallen. Our lampstand has not yet been taken from us. We have work to do. We have so much to offer to a world that needs so desperately the grace entrusted to us by Christ.

The spontaneous outpouring of grief, support, solidarity, and love on social media, not just from Catholics but many people from all walks of life, showed that the majestic Cathedral and what it symbolizes still resonates deeply in our society. Notre Dame embodies something that people need deep down in their hearts and still want on some level, even if they cannot articulate that desire. As the fires raged, perhaps another fire was being kindled in the hearts of many – the desire to return to our spiritual roots. So it seemed as so many on social media shared a clip of the crowd that had assembled near the building singing the Ave Maria. That beautiful clip, capturing the most beloved prayer to Our Lady, will forever be associated with the public response to the conflagration. In fact, the crowds sang and prayed for hours outside.

Notre Dame means Our Lady. She is the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. The cathedral houses many beautiful depictions of Mary, among them several images of her from other parts of the world. While the building is a symbol of French culture and history, spiritually Notre Dame belongs to all the world. Our Lady is not just the Lady of Paris or of France, but, as we might call her, Our Lady of All Nations. As the world mourns for the cathedral that has so majestically honored our Blessed Mother for so long, let us invite the people of the world into Our Lady's open and outstretched arms, so that she can enfold us all in her motherly embrace and lead us to that true peace that only her Son can give.


Photo Credit: Initial picture of the interior of Notre Dame Cathedral after the fire released to the media and widely circulated on the Internet.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

12 Ways to Make Lent a Life-changing Experience

As Catholics, one of the most counter-cultural things we can do is to observe the season of Lent. In our hyper-materialistic, instant grat culture, the idea of 40 days of deliberate self-denial is sure to be seen as crazy. But Lent is a profound opportunity for positive transformation.

The focus of Lent is fourfold:
- Preparing for the liturgical celebration of the death and resurrection of Christ, especially through the Triduum liturgies of Holy Week.
- Atoning for our sins through penitential practices.
- Becoming spiritually purified so that we can be more fully opened to the presence of Christ in our daily lives.
- Preparing ourselves and the world for the Second Coming of Christ.

In this article, I will explore 12 disciplines that can help us to set out on a path of life-giving transformation during the Lenten season. The first three of these, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, are especially encouraged by the Church during this penitential season.

1) Prayer: Lent is a great time to get into the habit of more regular prayer. If we establish a custom of prayer over the 40 days of Lent, we have a good chance of continuing beyond the season. Below are some suggestions for making Lent more prayerful:
- If you don’t already pray the Rosary, commit to praying one full Rosary every day during Lent. If that does not seem possible, then at first commit to saying at least one decade of the Rosary per day.
- Pray the Seven Sorrows Rosary, a special prayer focused on reflecting on Our Lady's suffering. The Blessed Virgin Mary has an especially significant role in the theology of Lent. During Lent, the Church focuses on the suffering of Christ. Mary, by virtue of being the Mother of God, is more closely united to Christ than anyone else. Therefore, she participated in the suffering of her son in a special way, experiencing more suffering than any other created being, other than the human nature of Christ. Thus, Mary, who is the Mother of the Church and the Mother of All Christians, knows our pain when we face the vicissitudes of life, and she is more than ready to help us when we call upon her. (Please see my guide to the Seven Sorrows Rosary for further details on this devotion.)
- Follow the Mass readings of each day of the Lent season. You can find various reflections on the daily readings, such as those of Bishop Barron.
- You might also follow another program of Scripture readings designed for Lent. You can find various sets online, often with commentary.
- Read more Scripture in some other way, for example, by reading one chapter from the Gospels each day.
- Commit to praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet each day during Lent.
- Pray the Stations of the Cross daily or at least on the Fridays of Lent.

2) Fasting: Fasting is an ancient discipline of great spiritual power. Fasting is especially helpful in four ways:

I.) Fasting builds self-control. Food and drink are basic to our survival as human beings, and we have all come to rely on certain types of food and drink for our sense of comfort. We all know how easily the desires of the body can weigh us down and derail us from our goals. In order to be able to live a spiritually, psychologically, and physically healthy life, we have to be able to have to control over our physical desires. By denying ourselves something that plays such a significant role in our day-to-day sense of well-being, we are able to gain much greater control over our bodies.

II.) Fasting helps us make room for God. When we seek succor, comfort, or stress-relief, we very often turn to food and drink. When we remove these go-to creature comforts, we have to confront a sense of emptiness within us. Experiencing that sense of emptiness is a great opportunity to turn to God and invite him into our hearts.

III.) Fasting is a powerful way of atoning for our sins.

IV.) Fasting is a powerful weapon in spiritual warfare. The closer we get to God, the more our spiritual enemies will seek to attack and derail us. Fasting helps to break the power of evil spirits over us and over those we are praying for. In fact, exorcists often fast when they are engaged in exorcisms. In Mark 9:29, Jesus tells us that some demons can only be driven out through "prayer and fasting." (Unfortunately, recently biblical editors have been leaving out the word "fasting" from the passage, due to some manuscript differences, but the significance of the words of Jesus remains.)

So how should we fast? In bye-gone times, our Catholic ancestors observed a much stricter regimen of fasting and abstinence than what the Church mandates today. At one point, many Catholics maintained an essentially vegan diet during the season. Today's rules are much softer. Catholics 14 and older are required to abstain from meat and poultry (but not all animal products) on the Fridays of Lent and Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Catholics between the ages of 18 and 60 are required to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Fasting here is defined as having one full meal, plus two smaller meals that do not add up to one full meal. Snacking between meals is not allowed, but liquids such as coffee, milk, tea, or juice, are.

Today's fasting regulations still have us eating better than much of the rest of the world on a good day. In fact, it's hard to think of eating three meals a day, however, small those might be, with no limit on liquids, as fasting. On the other hand, if we are used to stress eating or just munching throughout the day, even the prescribed fast can be a real trial.

To foster the discipline of fasting during Lent, I would recommend the following. To begin, be sure to observe the rules of fasting and abstinence required by the Church. However, these rules are a minimum. Individual Catholics are welcome to go beyond these requirements, and I would recommend that you do so, by undertaking one or more of these suggestions:

- On the Wednesdays and Fridays of Lent, fast on bread and water only. If two days are two daunting, fast on every Friday during the season. If one full day does not seem possible, fast for portions of one or more days.
- Commit to having only three meals a day, with no snacking in between on more days than just Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. On these additional days, you could eat three full meals but would limit yourself by not snacking between meals.
- Give up a food or drink you especially love, from Ash Wednesday until after you attend Easter Mass.

Some people suggest that instead of fasting from food, you could fast from forms of entertainment, like music or movies or social media. While giving up things other than food and drink in order to foster a sense of discipline can also be highly beneficial, still at the heart of fasting is depriving ourselves of physical sustenance. No other deprivation will have the same transformative effect and spiritual power. Catholic tradition is very clear. If we want to make significant spiritual progress, we have to engage in some form of regular physical fasting.

We should note, however, that the fasting and abstinence rules make exceptions for some categories of people, for example pregnant mothers, workers who have to eat regularly to be able to fulfill their duties, or individuals with medical conditions that necessitate a certain diet. However, even in some of these situations, some degree of physical self-denial might be possible. For example, we might select types of food and drink that we like less than what we would normally have, or we might not season our food in the way that we would normally enjoy.

But in any case, use prudence. The Church does not expect us to harm ourselves through our discipline. Do not do anything that would jeopardize your well-being or that of others. If your physical condition makes it truly impossible to fast, you will achieve the same spiritual growth by enduring your physical limitations with a good grace.

Also, if you are new to fasting, start small, with doable goals. One danger is to start with sweeping plans, which can then lead to failure and giving up. Instead, start small. Once you have reached that goal, you can always add to it. Above all, make sure that your fasting doesn't turn you into a terrible person to be around. If your discipline is causing you to violate the most basic principles of charity, then you are doing things wrong.

3) Almsgiving: During the season of Lent, the Church encourages us to focus on almsgiving more than during the rest of the year. To do so, we should start by examining how we use our resources. Do we waste a lot of money on pointless things? If we find ourselves engaging in excess spending, could we not cut back a little in order to share some of those resources with others in need?

Lent is also a great time to examine our possessions. Do we have a lot of accumulated stuff that we don't use but that others might find valuable? During Lent, try to set aside one unused item in good condition every day or every other day or at least once a week to give away to others who might need them.

4) Repentance and Spiritual Cleansing: As we get closer to God, our spiritual enemies will work extra hard to try to derail our progress. They especially want to draw us away from moments in which we can experience the grace of God in a powerful way. We can expect intensified spiritual attacks during Lent. Therefore, it is especially important to use the time of Lent to turn away from sin and to seek the healing power of Christ to cleanse us from negative spiritual influences. I suggest the following spiritual practices:
- Examination of Conscience: Reflect daily on ways in which you have fallen away from Christ, and pray for the grace of complete repentance.
- Confession: Catholics are bound to go to Confession at least once a year during Lent, if conscious of a mortal sin. However, it is very beneficial to go to Confession much more often than that. In any case, go to Confession at least once during the season of Lent.
- Say spiritual binding prayers to cast our evil spirits that are attacking you and your family. For example, say aloud daily: “I repent of (name sin), and I close all doors that I may have opened through this sin. In the Holy Name of Jesus, I bind, rebuke, and cast out all demons that are attacking me and my family. I invite in the Holy Spirit into my family, into our hearts, our homes, and our lives. I invoke the protection of our Holy Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the holy angels, especially our guardian angels, and all the saints, especially the martyrs who shed their blood for the Lord.”

5) Giving Something Up: Many people give something up for Lent. The sentence "What are you giving up for Lent this year?" is a frequent conversation started among Catholics. If this Lenten sacrifice is to be meaningful, it should take on one of two forms:

I.) You should give up something that plays a significant role in your day-to-day life, in order to develop a great sense of control and discipline or to offer the sacrifice as a form of atonement for sin.

II.) You should give up something that constitutes a bad habit, which you are hoping not to go back to after Lent. In fact, Lent is a season during which we have a structured way to uproot bad habits. If we can refrain from a negative habit for six and a half weeks, we have a good chance of not falling back into it.

6) Take on a Good Habit: As the saying goes, nature abhors a vacuum. If you give up a bad habit, something else will take its place in your life. Make sure that a good habit replaces the bad one. As you decide to uproot a bad habit, be intentional about fostering a good habit in its place.

7) Draw Closer to the Sacraments: The Seven Sacraments are at the heart of the Catholic life. The culmination of the Lenten preparations is the Triduum, the holiest time of the liturgical year. The Triduum, literally meaning three days, goes from the evening of Holy Thursday through the evening of Easter Sunday. On Holy Thursday, we commemorate the Last Supper, in the course of which Christ instituted the Eucharist. On Good Friday, we reflect on the crucifixion of Christ, through which he offered the sacrifice that reconciled humanity with God. As we pray together on Good Friday, we also remember that every Mass is a mystical participation in the sacrifice offered by Christ on the Cross. The next day, on Holy Saturday, the Easter Vigil begins our celebration of the resurrection. At the Easter Vigil, we also celebrate the full initiation of the elect through baptism, Confirmation, and First Holy Communion. Validly baptized converts from other Christian denominations are also given Confirmation and the Eucharist at this Mass.

Given the sacramental focus of the season, use Lent to draw closer to each of the sacraments either through your participation or through your prayers. I would recommend the following:

- Make a commitment to participating in the Triduum liturgies on Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday.
- Pray for all those who will be initiated into the full communion of the Church at the Easter Vigil.
- Make a commitment to attending Mass more often than just on Sunday during Lent.
- On days when you cannot attend Mass, unite yourself spiritually with the Eucharist.
- Go to Adoration at least once a week during Lent.

- As mentioned above, go to Confession at least once during the season of Lent.

- During Lent, reflect on your baptism and Confirmation. Reflect on the following questions: “How would my life be different if I had not been baptized and Confirmed? What blessings have I received through my baptism and Confirmation? How can I share those blessings with others?”

- Pray for a priest by name (or several priests) during the season of Lent, as well as for vocations to the priesthood. Pray for all of our ordained ministers and the healing of the Church during these times of crisis.

- Pray for all those who are ill in mind or body, especially those who do not have access to the Anointing of the Sick for whatever reason. Pray in a special way for those who are struggling with loss or grief during this time.

- If you are married, focus on ways that you can enrich your marriage during Lent. Here some suggestions:

I.) Pray together every night. It is very important for married couples to spend at least a few minutes in prayer together every day. If you are not already praying together daily, make this a part of your Lenten discipline.

II.) During your prayer time, name one thing each day that acknowledges some sort of sacrifice that the other person has made for you over the years. You can also alternate, by having one of you name a sacrifice on odd days, and the other on even days.

III.) Consecrate your marriage to our Blessed Mother every Saturday during Lent (Saturdays being days specially set aside for our Holy Mother). As mentioned above, the Blessed Virgin Mary has an especially significant role in Lent. Our Lady has experienced more suffering than any other created being, other than the human nature of Christ. Being our Mother, she is always ready to help us when we face anguish, sorrow, or challenges in life.

IV.) Say a blessing over each other every day during Lent, preferably in person, but if that is not possible, from a distance. Pray to each other's guardian angel for blessings.

V.) If you have kids, pray a blessing over your children every day during Lent, preferably while they are present, but you can do so in their absence too. Consecrate your children to the protection of our Holy Mother every Saturday during Lent. Pray to the guardian angels of your children to help them be fully open to the love of God in their lives.

Below are some sample prayers you can use:

Prayer of Consecration to Our Lady for Couples

Most Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God,
Queen of Angels, Queen of Peace,
Queen of Martyrs and of All the Saints,
Today we consecrate our marriage to you.
Guide us, guard us, help us, and protect us.
Keep us safe from all attacks of the enemy,
All evil spirits seeking to destroy us.

Dear Mother,
Guide all our thoughts, words, and actions,
So that in all things we may live out God's will in our lives,
And that at all times we may draw closer to your Divine Son,
Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Help us help each other grow in holiness, advancing each day
On the way of salvation and sanctification
So that we may join you and all the holy angels and saints
In giving glory, honor, and praise to our God
With our whole being, with all that we are.
Amen

Prayer of Consecrating Our Children to Our Lady
(Adapt as needed)

Most Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God,
Queen of Angels, Queen of Peace,
Queen of Martyrs and of All the Saints,
Today I consecrate my children to you.
Guide them, guard them, help them, and protect them.
Keep them safe from all attacks of the enemy,
All evil spirits seeking to destroy them.

Dear Mother,
Guide all their thoughts, words, and actions,
So that in all things they may live out God's will in their lives,
And that at all times they may draw closer to your Divine Son,
Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Help me help them grow in holiness, advancing each day
On the way of salvation and sanctification
So that they may join you and all the holy angels and saints
In giving glory, honor, and praise to our God
With their whole being, with all that they are.
Amen

Prayer of Blessing (Female Version)

Lord Jesus Christ, glorious King of Kings,
I pray that you bless [name] my [wife or daughter].
Send your Holy Spirit upon her, and anoint her.
Cleanse her spiritually,
Keep her safe from all evil, all attacks of the enemy.
Heal her and keep her whole in body, mind, and spirit,
Help her love you with her whole heart, soul, strength, and mind.
Let her experience your infinite love for her,
Let her always say yes to the promptings of your Holy Spirit,
And let her be a shining beacon of your love in the world.

I pray also for the protection of our Holy Mother,
The Blessed Virgin Mary over [name],
And of all the holy angels, martyrs, and saints.
I ask all the holy souls in Purgatory to pray for her.

I also ask you, holy guardian angel of [name]
To watch over her, help her, guide her, and protect her,
And help to lead her to full union with our Lord Jesus Christ.
Amen

Prayer of Blessing (Male Version)

Lord Jesus Christ, glorious King of Kings,
I pray that you bless [name] my [husband or son].
Send your Holy Spirit upon him, and anoint him.
Cleanse him spiritually,
Keep him safe from all evil, all attacks of the enemy.
Heal him and keep him whole in body, mind, and spirit,
Help him love you with his whole heart, soul, strength, and mind.
Let him experience your infinite love for him,
Let him always say yes to the promptings of your Holy Spirit,
And let him be a shining beacon of your love in the world.

I pray also for the protection of our Holy Mother,
The Blessed Virgin Mary over [name],
And of all the holy angels, martyrs, and saints.
I ask all the holy souls in Purgatory to pray for him.

I also ask you, holy guardian angel of [name]
To watch over him, help him, guide him, and protect him,
And help to lead him to full union with our Lord Jesus Christ.
Amen

8) Simplifying Your Life: Lent is a great time to reflect on how you spend your time. Do you feel overwhelmed by everything you have to get done? Do you feel like you are always rushing from one thing to another? Write down the many things that occupy your time. Examine the list and see if you can't eliminate at least some of them. Use the time and energy you free up to focus on Christ more fully.

9) Offer up Your Suffering: During Lent, the Church focusses on the Passion of Christ. Not only did Christ accept the Cross for our sake, but he also told us to take up our cross and follow him. If we want to be Christ's disciples, we have to accept suffering. If we want to be able to grow, to transcend our selfishness and to be able to love God with our whole being, as well as to love all of his children with his love, then we have to embrace our cross in life. As I like to say, the gate of Heaven is in the shape of the cross.

Of course, there is much suffering that we can overcome or prevent through simple measures, such as a headache easily cured with some painkillers. In these cases, we should not hesitate to try to make the suffering cease or to try to forestall it. In other cases, suffering is caused by injustices, which we should challenged. But in every person's life, there will be some form of profound suffering that is inevitable. Such suffering we should accept with a good grace and see in it a potential for positive transformation and growth.

What is more, an important principle of Catholic spirituality is that we can take the spiritual value of suffering accepted with good grace, and we can offer it up for another person, who will receive graces through our gift of the spiritual fruit of our suffering. In offering our suffering for the benefit of others, we are imitating Christ himself, who offered the spiritual fruits of the ultimate sacrifice, his death upon the Cross, for the salvation of humanity. In fact, we might say, that offering up our suffering for others is the most Christ-like thing we can do.

10) Remember Our Mortality: Lent is a good opportunity to reflect on the temporal nature of our sojourn here on earth. We are all going to die. That is what the ashes symbolize on Ash Wednesday. During the distribution of ashes, the priest has the option of saying: "Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return." Some Catholics place a replica of a skull on their desk or in their prayer space during Lent as a reminder of the inevitability of death.

You might wonder why we should be so morbid during this time. The answer is that some focus on death can help us to set our priorities straight. We are not going to live in our current earthly setting forever. With regard to the stuff we accumulate, as the title of the play says, "you can't take it with you." The only thing we can take with us is what we have built up in our souls, for good or for ill. In the season of Lent, let us bear in mind that we are all going to die, and let us ponder in what spiritual state we would like to be when we cross over to the other side.

11) Pray for the Souls in Purgatory: The souls in Purgatory are people who have died in a state of grace but still need a certain amount of purification before they can reach full union with God in Heaven. These souls have been saved, and therefore they are called holy. They are certain to make it to Heaven, but only after their time of purging is over. The Church teaches that our prayers can help the holy souls in Purgatory reach Heaven faster. The souls in Purgatory can also pray for us. We can also be assured that once these souls have left Purgatory and made it to Heaven, in part at least due to our prayers, they will be delighted to pray for us in turn.

During the season of Lent, take a few minutes each day to pray for these souls. The article below has some good suggestions for how:

20 Ways to Pray for the Holy Souls in Purgatory

12) Celebrate the Feast Days: Though Lent is a time of penitential self-denial, a few days of feasting fall during the season. One is St. Patrick's Day (March 17), which has become hugely important in American culture. Another is the Feast of St. Joseph (March 19), which also entails cultural celebrations, though on a lower scale, at least in the United States. Thirdly, we have the Feast of the Annunciation, which sometimes falls during Lent, but at other times might fall outside of it. Feasting is definitely appropriate on all of these days.

Traditionally, Laetare Sunday was another day when the Lenten discipline was relaxed. Laetare Sunday marks the halfway point toward Lent, and priests often wear rose colored vestments to highlight the occasion. This day can function as something of a halftime between the two halves of Lent.

What is more, every Sunday of Lent is considered a feast, in that Sundays can never be penitential, since they are a celebration of the resurrection. Technically, our Lenten discipline does not apply to Sundays. However, some debate exists in the Church as to whether or not we should stop our penitential practices during Sundays in Lent. Personally, I think that depends on what those practices are. If we are seeking to uproot a bad habit, we should not return to it on the Sundays of Lent. If we are seeking to establish a new good habit, like praying daily, we should not discontinue what we are doing on Sundays. But if we gave up something like chocolate, we could theoretically go back to it on Sundays. However, we should bear in mind, that for many, it's easier to give things up for the whole duration of Lent then to go back to them here and there.

Share Your Own Ideas: I hope that the above list has given you some good ideas for your Lenten discipline. If you have Lenten ideas of your own, please share them with me, so that I can expand this list (giving you due credit of course).


Printable Format: This article is available for download as a PDF. Please feel free to share the PDF with others either electronically or in printed format.

12 Ways to Make Lent a Life-changing Experience PDF

Photo Credit: Our Lady of Sorrows inside the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela by Zoltan Abraham (c) 2017

Thursday, February 14, 2019

14 Tips for a Catholic Celebration of St. Valentine's Day


Catholic reactions to Valentine's Day range from a whole-hearted embracing of the day with all of its commercialized dimensions, to utter disdain, wishing nothing more than that the day might be obliterated from our calendar. But I would propose an approach different from both of these. I would, instead, advocate for an intentionally Catholic celebration of the day. After all, whether Valentine's Day is a Christian holiday that was secularized, or a pagan holiday that was Christianized and then re-secularized, or simply a commercial holiday made up for the benefit of merchants, the day is tied to the date of a Catholic feast. As Catholics, let's claim, or reclaim, this day as St. Valentine's Day, and let's celebrate it as one of our special Catholic days.

Below are 14 tips for how we can do so (plus a bonus one at the end). These suggestions are intended for Catholic couples, but others might benefit from them as well.

1) Remember Our Eternal Calling: The focus of Valentine's Day is a celebration of human romance, but if we think of the day as St. Valentine's Day, it is also a great day to remember our eternal calling. God calls each of us into an enteral relationship of love. God is love and has created us to share his love with us. We can find ultimate, existential fulfillment only by accepting God's love and requiting his love by giving ourselves to him fully. As someone once said, Christianity is not a religion; it is a proposal of marriage. On St. Valentine's Day, let us reflect on God's call to each of us, whether single, dating, engaged, married, to enter into an eternal relationship of love with him.

2) Learn About St. Valentine: Many articles have been written about the history of St. Valentine's Day, so I will provide just a few details here and will include links for further reading below. St. Valentine was a third century priest or bishop who was martyred for his Christian faith during the persecution of the Christians in Rome, on February 14. A number of theories have been advanced as to why his feast day later became associated with romantic love. One theory posits that St. Valentine helped Christian young men and women get married in secret when the Emperor Claudius II banned marriages in order to bolster participation in his military campaigns by young men. The custom of exchanging tokens of love on St. Valentine's Day dates back to Medieval times and is first mentioned by the poet Chaucer. The holiday was commercialized by enterprising merchants in the 19th century.

Further reading:

History of St. Valentine

3 Things You Might Not Know About St. Valentine

What You Might Not Know About St. Valentine's Day

Shrine of St Valentine, Whitefriar Street Church

3) Pray to St. Valentine: Quite a few groups of people and causes are included under the patronage of St. Valentine. Among them are the young, those in love, those engaged, and the cause of happy marriages. Catholic couples would do well to pray to St. Valentine for help and protection, particularly on February 14, since prayers to saints are especially powerful on their feast days. Below is a suggested prayer.

Prayer to St. Valentine
St. Valentine, glorious martyr for Christ,
Patron of those in love,
We pray that you bless our relationship,
Help us to stay holy, always focused on Christ,
That we may love each other with the love of Christ,
Unselfishly, willing to sacrifice for each other,
Willing to carry the Cross for each other,
So that we may help each other
To grow in faith, hope, and love,
Reaching ever closer to full union with our Lord,
Giving him honor, glory, and praise in all that we do.
Amen.

4) Visit a Martyr's Shrine: If you live near a church or shrine dedicated to St. Valentine, make a point of visiting it on St. Valentine's Day. If no such places are to be found in your area, visit another church or shrine dedicated to the memory of a martyr.

5) Focus on Martyrs: Use this day as an opportunity to develop a relationship with the martyrs of Catholic history. Unfortunately, the word martyr is sometimes used in a negative sense in colloquial language, signifying someone who is overly dramatic in their self-sacrifice. But the original meaning of the word martyr is witness. Throughout Catholic history, martyrs have made the ultimate sacrifice to give witness to Christ, even to the shedding of their blood. They would rather lose their lives than deny Christ.

On St. Valentine's Day, commit to learning more about the lives of martyrs. Spend the next fourteen days reading about the life of a martyr every day. Also, start including prayers to the martyrs of our faith in your daily prayers.

6) Reflect on Self-sacrificial Love: A reflection on the lives of martyrs is very appropriate on a day that celebrates romantic love. True love is about unselfishly offering of ourselves for the benefit of the other, making sacrifices for the other, and if necessary, even laying our lives down for the other. Of course, in a healthy relationship, this sense of self-giving is from both sides. If only one person has a sacrificial outlook, and the other person just takes and does not give, the relationship will become toxic and abusive. But in a true love relationship, both sides foster an attitude of sacrificial self-giving, and it is precisely through such a disposition that they find lasting joy in their relationship.

7) Wear red: Red, of course, is the color associated with St. Valentine's Day. What many people don't realize is that red is the liturgical color commemorating martyrs. So wear red not because it is the color of romance, but because we are commemorating a martyr. If someone comments on your red attire, you could weave in a mention of honoring martyrs into your response.

8) Go to Mass Together: Many couples go out to eat on St. Valentine's Day. Romantic candle lit dinners can be wonderful. But before you eat out, take part in Mass, which is the anticipation of our eternal banquet with Christ. At Mass, we partake in the holy sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, which gives meaning to our own self-sacrificial love. At Mass, we receive the Body and Blood of Our Lord, which gives us eternal life and the strength to persevere in our day-to-day lives. What could be a more beautiful celebration of love on St. Valentine's Day than to share Mass together as a couple?

9) Spend Time in Adoration Together: Praying together as a couple is fundamental to strong, healthy, lasting relationship. If you are not already spending some time in prayer together every day, make a commitment to do so. The best place for personal prayer is in Adoration, whenever possible. While Adoration is not always accessible, make a point of going to Adoration together as a couple on St. Valentine's Day. Spending time in prayer together before our Lord is an inexhaustible source of blessings.

While in Adoration on St. Valentine's Day, read and reflect on biblical verses about love and marriage. Many websites have compiled such verses, but I would especially recommend the following:

44 Refreshing Bible Verses About Love and Marriage

10) Turn to Our Holy Mother: The best way to strengthen your relationship is to bring it under the guidance and protection of our Holy Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary. On St. Valentine's Day, take some time to consecrate your relationship to Our Lady. After your consecration, pray the Rosary together. The Luminous Mysteries would be most appropriate, since the second Luminous Mystery is the Wedding at Cana. Below is a suggestion for a prayer of consecration. If you can make it to Adoration and are alone together in the Adoration chapel, there is no reason why you couldn't say this this prayer and the Rosary, as well as the other prayers recommended in this article, out loud. But if others are present, say the prayers somewhere else, where you are not disturbing the prayers of others.

Prayer of Consecration to Our Lady for Couples

Most Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God,
Queen of Angels, Queen of Peace,
Queen of Martyrs and of All the Saints,
Today we consecrate our relationship to you.
Guide us, guard us, help us, and protect us.
Keep us safe from all attacks of the enemy,
All evil spirits seeking to destroy us.

Dear Mother,
Guide all our thoughts, words, and actions,
So that in all things we may live out God's will in our lives,
And that at all times we may draw closer to your Divine Son,
Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Help us help each other grow in holiness, advancing each day
On the way of salvation and sanctification
So that we may join you and all the holy angels and saints
In giving glory, honor, and praise to our God
With our whole being, with all that we are.
Amen

11) Pray Over Each Other: Say a special prayer of blessing over each other for St. Valentine's Day, invoking our Lord, our Holy Mother, the martyrs and saints, and the holy angels. Pray to each other's guardian angels for each other. Below is a blessing prayer you could use.

Prayer of Blessing (Female Version)

Lord Jesus Christ, glorious King of Kings,
I pray that you bless [name] my [girlfriend, fiancée, wife].
Send your Holy Spirit upon her, and anoint her.
Cleanse her spiritually,
Keep her safe from all evil, all attacks of the enemy.
Heal her and keep her whole in body, mind, and spirit,
Help her love you with her whole heart, soul, strength, and mind.
Let her experience your infinite love for her,
Let her always say yes to the promptings of your Holy Spirit,
And let her be a shining beacon of your love in the world.

I pray also for the protection of our Holy Mother,
The Blessed Virgin Mary over [name],
And of all the holy angels, martyrs, and saints.
I ask all the holy souls in Purgatory to pray for her.

I also ask you, holy guardian angel of [name]
To watch over her, help her, guide her, and protect her,
And help to lead her to full union with our Lord Jesus Christ.
Amen

Prayer of Blessing (Male Version)

Lord Jesus Christ, glorious King of Kings,
I pray that you bless [name] my [boyfriend, fiancé, husband].
Send your Holy Spirit upon him, and anoint him.
Cleanse him spiritually,
Keep him safe from all evil, all attacks of the enemy.
Heal him and keep him whole in body, mind, and spirit,
Help him love you with his whole heart, soul, strength, and mind.
Let him experience your infinite love for him,
Let him always say yes to the promptings of your Holy Spirit,
And let him be a shining beacon of your love in the world.

I pray also for the protection of our Holy Mother,
The Blessed Virgin Mary over [name],
And of all the holy angels, martyrs, and saints.
I ask all the holy souls in Purgatory to pray for him.

I also ask you, holy guardian angel of [name]
To watch over him, help him, guide him, and protect him,
And help to lead him to full union with our Lord Jesus Christ.
Amen

12) Learn About the Theology of the Body: If you haven't already done so, St. Valentine's Day is a great day to start learning about the Theology of the Body, a systematic expression of the Catholic understanding of God's vision for human relationships, based especially on the teachings of St. John Paul II.

For further reading, please see the following site: Theology of the Body

13) Give a Spiritual Gift: Some people are put off by the commercialized gift-giving on St. Valentine's Day. But giving gifts is fun, and there is nothing wrong with the practice as long as we do so in moderation and with good judgment. In addition to, or in place of, customary gifts like chocolates, flowers, jewelry, and the like, why not give a spiritually oriented gift? How about a holy picture, statue of Our Lady or of a saint, a holy medal, a beautiful Rosary, or something similar?

If you are good at crafts, you could also make something of a religious significance, like a Rosary. Or consider having a Mass said for your beloved. Also, if you plan ahead, you can order some of the more conventional gifts, like chocolates or jewelry, from a religious supplier, like a convent or monastery, where they earn their living by making such items for sale. You can then help to support the life of a religious community while getting something nice for your sweetheart.

14) Enjoy Yourself: The Catholic Church has never had a problem with merrymaking, as long as we have fun responsibly, in moderation, and in accordance with the boundaries of our state of life. So have some wholesome fun. Just don't do anything that you will need to mention in Confession later.

15) Bonus Tip: Since the stores are full of heart-shaped candies and chocolates, put some aside in the freezer, and bring them out for the feast of the Sacred Heart and the feast of the Immaculate Heart in the summer as a special treat to enjoy on those days.


Photo: Tomb of St. Valentine in the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on Whitefriar Street in Dublin by Zoltan Abraham (c) 2018.

Monday, February 11, 2019

An Angel in the Dark: How Help Came to Me on My 8-hour Journey Home in the Snow


Another heavy snowfall hit the Seattle area on Friday, February 8, and I had quite an adventure. I left my work at 1:05pm, just as the snow started to fall, but I didn't get home until 9:00pm. What is normally a 35-40 minute commute turned into eight full hours.

Seattle comes in for a lot of mockery whenever we get snow. But we have some unique conditions to deal with in our area. For one, we have a high concentration of homes and businesses on very steep hills. Add to that fluctuating temperatures that lead to a cycle of freezing, uneven thawing, and refreezing, making for patches of ice in unpredictable places. What is more, the many hills and mountains create a large variety of microclimates, which makes it hard to plan, since one neighborhood might by slushy, while a few blocks away there could be inches of snow. Given that snow rarely falls in the area, our local governments cannot justify spending a lot of money on machinery and chemicals to clear all of the roads when a snowstorm does arrive. Nor are most drivers prepared for such weather, since we could go a year to two without seeing snow. All of which sets us up for the worst possible driving conditions...

As I headed home on February 8, I knew things were not working out well when it took me over 3 hours to go just five miles. At that point, I decided to stop for a break and a bite at the local Fred Meyer. As I headed out again, I tried to pick the best route on the basis of the traffic indications on my phone map. But, as it would turn out, I had made the wrong choice.

Throughout my trek, as I sat in traffic and later drove in the heavy snow, I kept my mind occupied by listening to music, talks, and an audiobook. I was determined to keep a good attitude. I was sure I would get home sooner or later and didn't panic as that later became much, much later.

But there was one pretty scary moment. After about six hours of trying to get home, as I was heading up a dark hilly area, I suddenly found that the road had a ton of snow, much more than just a short distance away. I definitely needed chains to navigate this section, but just then I also realized that one of my chains had come apart in one place, and I was not able to fix it without a tool, which I didn't have with me.

I was standing by my car in the snowfall, in the cold and dark, thinking that this time I was going to get stranded. Without the chains, I would not be able to go forward, nor would I be able to turn back. Nor was there any city center within walking distance. Perhaps I could ask for help at one of the nearby homes, but I was surrounded by large properties, where the houses were far from the road.

During my drive, I said various prayers as I progressed through the especially stressful parts. In this moment, I said a very simple, specific prayer. I simply said, "Mary, I really, really need some help now. Please help me out."

Not a minute went by, when a pickup truck came up the road and stopped. A young man got out and asked: "Are you doing okay there?" I told him my predicament, and he soon produced a tool that could get the chain fixed. Within a few minutes, I was able to get back on the road. He told me that he was just out and about testing his truck, so he had been on a number of routes. He gave me some good suggestions for how to proceed and recommended that I turn around and follow a different route. He blocked the road with his truck so I could take my time carefully jostling back and forth in the snow in order to change directions safely.

The rest of the drive was long but uneventful. I got home safe. I will probably never meet the young man in the truck again. If I did, I wouldn't recognize him, because I didn't get a good look at his face in the dark. I didn't even get his name in the midst of everything. But he was just the right person sent my way just at the right time. I am sure that his driving by and stopping when he did was no coincidence...


Picture: Our Lady of the Snow. As the first snowfall came this winter, our outdoor statue got an usual snow cover, making it look like someone is hugging Our Lady.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

February 2: Candlemas, the Purification, the Presentation, and the End of Christmas


In the Catholic Church, February 2 has traditionally been known as Candlemas, because the priest would bless candles at Mass, for use both at home and in the church.

Historically, this feast was celebrated as the Purification of the Virgin Mary, that is to say the end of the period of ritual impurity that a woman was considered to have after giving birth. In the new calendar, the day is celebrated as the Presentation of the Lord, when Mary and Joseph present the baby Jesus in the Temple, which concludes the ritual purification of the Virgin Mary. The two feasts are really the same, just approaching the same event, described in Luke 2:22-38, from different angles.

The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple is the Fourth Joyful Mystery of the Rosary. At the same time, the same event is also the First Sorrow of Mary, because it is at this time that Mary first learns, through the prophecy of Simeon, of the suffering that her son must later endure. The Seven Sorrows Rosary starts with a reflection on the Presentation.

In an old Catholic tradition, February 2 is also the day when the last of the Christmas decorations are taken down. Specifically, in many areas, including in the Vatican, the Nativity scene is kept out until February 2.

Further reading:

What is Candlemas Day?

The Tradition of Candlemas

Please note: The image above is from the web and is not my own.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Have Yourself a Very Blessed Advent: How to Reclaim the Catholic Character of the Advent Season

Our culture starts to celebrate Christmas at best at midnight after Thanksgiving, but more and more at midnight after Halloween. However, in the Catholic Church, we do not start the Christmas season until the evening of December 24. Instead, we have a four-week preparation time leading up to Christmas called Advent, which begins on the Sunday closest to St. Andrew's Day, celebrated on November 30th. In the Catholic Church, the Christmas season then continues into January, until the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. In fact, in an older Catholic tradition, Christmas celebrations didn't end until Candlemas, which is February 2.

I'm not an Advent purist. I realize it's impossible not to engage in some early Christmas celebration, since our culture is awash with all things Christmas all the way through Advent. But in the midst of all that Christmas cheer, we can do much to reconnect with the original purpose of the Advent season and to reintroduce Advent customs developed in the Catholic Church throughout the centuries, throughout the world. Below are some suggestions for celebrating Advent in the Catholic way.

Reclaiming the Focus of Advent
The first step is to intentionally reconnect with the original focus of Advent, which is threefold:
- Preparing for the liturgical celebration of the birth of Christ, the incarnation of God.
- Becoming spiritually purified so that we can be more fully opened to the presence of Christ in our daily lives.
- Preparing ourselves and the world for the Second Coming of Christ.
When we enter into the Advent season with this focus, the many different Advent traditions fall into place naturally.

Advent Traditions
Please note: For this section, I relied heavily on the following article:
How to Celebrate Advent Like a Catholic

Advent Wreath: One of the most beloved Advent traditions is the Advent wreath, made of evergreen boughs, with four candles – three purple and one pink. On the first Sunday of Advent, you light one purple candle. On the second Sunday, you light two. On the third Sunday, you light the first two purple ones and the pink one. Pink or rose color is used on the third Sunday of Advent, which is known as Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin word for rejoice. We are rejoicing because we are halfway to Christmas. On the fourth Sunday of Advent, you light all four candles. The increasing light of the candles symbolizes that the coming of Christ, who is the light of the world, is closer and closer.

If you do not have a custom of praying with your family at home each day, Advent is a great time to start. Gather around the Advent wreath each night, light the appropriate number of Candles, and say some prayers. Once you start in Advent, it is easier to continue with the evening prayers the rest of the year.

The Jesse Tree: The name of the Jesse Tree references the biblical prophecy that the Messiah will come in the line of Jesse, the father of the great King David (Isaiah 11:1-4). This hands-on Advent custom uses a small tree or a specially designed display board to trace our biblical history leading up to Jesus. Each night of Advent you add an ornament representing a biblical figure or event preparing the way for the coming of the Lord. You can order a Jesse Tree kit with ornaments online, or you can make them yourself if you are good at crafts. If you set up your Christmas tree already at the beginning of Advent, you can also add the Jesse Tree ornaments to you Christmas tree, though it might be fun to have a separate Jesse Tree corner.

As you add each ornament, you can read a few verses from the Bible corresponding to the symbol on the ornament of the day. Some premade ornaments will come with the relevant Scripture verses inscribed on the back. You can also find online guides for which passage to use with which symbol, as well as books that include the readings with reflections. The links below provide some leads.

The Tradition of the Jesse Tree

The Jesse Tree

Advent Calendar: You can find a variety of Advent calendars in different places – both Catholic and secular stores and online. Advent Calendars typically start on December 1 and go through Christmas Day. Each day, you open a door, which leads you to some sort of surprise. Some calendars provide a chocolate for each day. Others, like the Lego Advent calendar, might offer a toy. In fact, I see from the posts of my Hungarian friends that they have gone beyond just a simple calendar. At the beginning of Advent, they display 24 little gift bags for each of the children somewhere in the home, and the kids get to open them as the Advent season unfolds.

Some Advent calendars have an adult theme, such as one I saw recently, which held a different type of beer for every day of Advent. While I don't think that an alcohol Advent calendar is inherently wrong, we do need to be careful not to turn the custom of the Advent calendar into something sacrilegious.

By contrast, the more spiritually focused Advent calendars will reveal a new Scripture passage, a blessing, or some other meaningful saying as you open up the door each day. If you have kids, the chocolate or toy calendars can be a fun tradition that can help them look forward to the Advent season. However, whatever kind of calendar you end up using, I would suggest opening each door in the context of an Advent prayer for that day.

Sunday Dinners: During the season of Advent, make a point of having Sunday dinner with family or friends. If you invite friends, you can make it a potluck. Or you could all go out to eat, especially if eating out is more of a special occasion for the family or circle of friends. Intentionally connect the dinner with the celebration of the Sunday in Advent. Start the dinner with an Advent prayer or Scripture passage, such as the Gospel reading for that Sunday. At home, you could place the Advent wreath in the middle of the table, with the appropriate number of candles lit.

Set Up Nativity Set in Stages: You can start setting up your Nativity Set at the beginning of Advent, but don't put everything out at once. Do it in stages, as a way of symbolizing that we haven't yet arrived at Christmas, but are gradually drawing near. For example, set out the animals the first week. Then add Mary and Joseph the second week. Add the angels the third week. Add the shepherds the fourth week.

Wait until Christmas Eve to place the baby Jesus in the manger. Some churches offer a Bambinelli blessing during Advent, when parishioners are encouraged to bring the baby Jesus figure from their Nativity Set to church for a blessing by the priest. If your parish doesn't celebrate this custom, perhaps you could ask your pastor to consider offering this blessing.

Finally, wait until the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6 (sometimes celebrated on the nearest Sunday) to set out the three wise men. As mentioned above, traditionally Catholics would keep celebrating Christmas until February 2. Even if you put away all the other decorations by then, leave your Nativity Set out until February 2 to rekindle our connection with this older tradition.

Blessing the Christmas Tree: Christians use the Christmas tree as a symbol of the coming of Christ into the world. The many lights on the tree symbolize Christ, the light of the world, bringing light into our darkness. The evergreen tree symbolizes rebirth, renewal, and eternal life in Christ. The triangular shape of the tree is seen as referring to the mystery of the Holy Trinity. The ornaments on the tree represent Christ's gift of grace to us, as well as our worship being offered to God.

As we prepare our Christmas tree, we should bear in mind the symbolism that Christians associate with this custom, and we should avoid ornaments that would take us in a different direction. Once our tree is set up, we should also bless the tree, thereby reminding ourselves of the sacred purpose for which we have set it up. Most priests probably do not have enough time to bless each Christmas tree in their parish, but Catholics are welcome to bless their own tree, using blessings provided by the Church. See for example the blessing recommended by the United States Conference of Bishops:

Blessing of a Christmas Tree

Leave a Candle in the Window: During the Advent season, leave a candle in a window that can be seen from the street. You could use a purple candle holder, and then switch to a red one for the Christmas season. Just make sure you burn your candle safely. Consider using an electronic tea light, which does not pose a fire hazard.

Advent Foods: One way to celebrate liturgical seasons is to partake of foods traditionally associated with each season. Advent foods have disappeared from mainstream Catholic consciousness in the United States, but we can certainly bring them back. Various blogs offer suggestions, complete with detail recipes. I will link to two here, but you can easily find more on the web.

Advent Foods for Feast Days and Everything Else

Recipes for December ~ Month Dedicated to the Divine Infancy

Listen to Advent Music: Throughout the month of December, our culture is awash with Christmas music. We cannot avoid hearing Christmas music during Advent, nor do I think that we need to try. However, we should also make a point of intentionally listening to specifically Advent music. The link below offers a list. Most of these songs are on YouTube, so you can select the ones you like and create a playlist.

Resources for Liturgy and Prayer for the Seasons of Advent and Christmas

Celebrate the Feasts during Advent: The Catholic liturgical calendar offers a rich variety of saints to celebrate during the year. Advent is no exception. The two most prominent are St. Nicholas (Dec 6) and St. Lucy (Dec 13), both of which have specific traditions associated with them. Furthermore, two major Marian feast days also fall in the Advent season: The Immaculate Conception (Dec 8) and Our Lady of Guadalupe (Dec 12). Advent is also enriched by various cultural traditions, such as the Filipino Simbang Gabi and the Mexican Las Posadas celebrations. Take part in these various festivities in your community, if they are offered. If not, you have a good chance of finding some of these customs in neighboring Catholic churches.

See also:
The major feasts of Advent

The Penitential Dimension of Advent
Historically, the season of Advent had more of a penitential character, much like Lent. We would do well to recapture some of the penitential aspect of the season. Penitential practices can help us to free ourselves from sinful habits and to refocus our lives on the love of God. Through penitential practices, we can also atone for our sins from the past. Below are some suggestions for penitential practices during during Advent:

- Abstain from meat one day during each week, for example, Friday.
- Fast one day each week during Advent on bread and water. If full one day does not seem possible, fast for portions of one or more days.
- Commit to having only three meals a day, with no snacking in between on certain days or during the whole of Advent.
- Give up a food or drink you especially love from the beginning of Advent until Christmas Eve.

Making Advent More Prayerful
Advent is a great time to get into the habit of more regular prayer. If we establish a custom of prayer over four weeks, we have a good chance of continuing beyond the season. Below are some suggestions for making Advent more prayerful:

- If you don’t already pray the Rosary, commit to praying one full Rosary every day during Advent. If that does not seem possible, then at first commit to saying at least one decade of the Rosary per day.
- Follow the Mass readings of each day of the Advent season. You can find various reflections on the daily readings, such as those of Bishop Barron.
- You might also follow another program of Scripture readings designed for Advent. You can find various sets, often with commentary.
- Read more Scripture in some other way, for example, by reading one chapter from the Gospels each day.
- Pray the Christmas Anticipation Prayer, also known as the Christmas Novena Prayer during the season of Advent, which can be found here.
- If you are married, pray a blessing over your spouse every day during Advent, preferably while he or she is present, but you can do so in their absence too. Pray to the guardian angel of your spouse to help him or her be fully open to the love of God in her life.
- If you have kids, pray a blessing over your children every day during Advent, preferably while they are present, but you can do so in their absence too. Pray to the guardian angels of your children to help them be fully open to the love of God in their lives.
- Commit to praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet each day during Advent.

Engage in Good Works
As a part of making Advent more spiritual, make sure that your spiritual commitment shows in your actions too. For example:
- Give alms.
- Perform works of service for family, friends, or strangers.
- Think of ways that you can continue these works of service beyond the Christmas season, during the months when charitable organizations get less attention from the public.
- Help kids get excited about doing good works by doing one of the following:
1) For each good deed they do, they get to put a piece of candy on the Christmas tree as decoration. (Some individually wrapped chocolates for example are easy to attach with ornament hooks). On Christmas Eve, they can start taking off all the candy and eating it.
2) Prepare an empty wooden box as the manger into which the baby Jesus will be placed on Christmas Eve. Whenever the kids do a good deed, they get to put a piece of straw into the manger. If they do a lot of good works during Advent, the baby Jesus will have a very comfortable manger.

Spiritual Cleansing
As we get closer to God, our spiritual enemies will work extra hard to try to derail our progress. They especially want to draw us away from moments in which we can experience the grace of God in a powerful way. We can expect intensified spiritual attacks during Advent. Therefore, it is especially important to use the time of Advent to turn away from sin and to seek the healing power of Christ to cleanse us from negative spiritual influences. I suggest the following spiritual practices.
- Examination of Conscience: Reflect daily on ways in which you have fallen away from Christ, and pray for the grace of complete repentance.
- Confession: Go to Confession at least once during the Advent season.
- Say spiritual binding prayers to cast our evil spirits that are attacking you and your family. For example, say aloud daily: “I repent of (name sin), and I close all doors that I may have opened through this sin. In the Holy Name of Jesus, I bind, rebuke, and cast out all demons that are attacking me and my family. I invite in the Holy Spirit into my family, into our hearts, our homes, and our lives. I invoke the protection of our Holy Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the holy angels, especially our guardian angels, and all the saints, especially the martyrs who shed their blood for the Lord.”

Drawing Closer to the Sacraments
The Seven Sacraments are at the heart of the Catholic life. Use the time of Advent to draw closer to each of the Sacraments either through your participation or through your prayers. I would recommend the following:

- Make a commitment to attending Mass more often than just on Sunday during Advent.
- On days when you cannot attend Mass, unite yourself spiritually with the Eucharist.
- Go to Adoration at least once a week during Advent.
- Remember that each Mass is like Christmas, because during each Mass, Christ comes to us in physical form in the Blessed Sacrament.

- As mentioned above, go to Confession at least once during the Advent season.

- During the Advent season, reflect on your baptism and Confirmation. Reflect on the following questions: “How would my life be different if I had not been baptized and Confirmed? What blessings have I received through my baptism and Confirmation? How can I share those blessings with others?”

- If you are married, focus on some form of marriage enrichment with your spouse during Advent. Assuming your spouse agrees, you could do the following:
1) Get an Advent calendar that has room for things to be placed inside. For every odd day on the calendar, place a small note inside in which you compliment your spouse somehow. For every even day, your spouse would then put inside the calendar a note complimenting you in some way. For each day until Christmas, you read the note that was placed inside. For Christmas Day, you would each place a note of compliment inside the calendar. This way, the whole Advent season can become a time of bonding.
2) Each night during Advent, both you and your spouse each place a new ornament on the Christmas tree, and as you do, you each say something positive about the other. If you have children, you can adapt these exercises to involve them too.

- Pray for a priest by name (or several priests) during the Advent season, as well as for vocations to the priesthood. Pray for all of our ordained ministers and the healing of the Church during these times of crisis.

- Pray for all those who are ill in mind or body, especially those who do not have access to the Anointing of the Sick for whatever reason. Pray in a special way for those who are struggling with loss or grief during a time when the world around them is so festive.

Share Your Own Ideas
I hope that the above list has given you things to think about and to do during the Advent season. If you have Advent ideas of your own, please share them with me, so that I can expand this list (giving you due credit of course). In closing, I am also including a list of links that you might find helpful.


Advent Resources:

How to Celebrate Advent Like a Catholic

The History of Advent

Resources for Liturgy and Prayer for the Seasons of Advent and Christmas

Catholic Apostolic Center Advent Resources

CatholicMom Advent Resources

Word on Fire Advent Reflections

The Best Advent Ever by Dynamic Catholic

Archdiocese of Seattle Advent Resources

Unites States Conference of Bishops Advent Resources

Advent Reflections from Formed

The Religion Teacher’s Advent Activities

National Catholic Education Association Advent Resources


Christmas Anticipation Prayer

The following prayer is recited 15 times per day from the Feast of St. Andrew on November 30 to Christmas:

Hail and blessed be the hour and moment
In which the Son of God was born
Of the most pure Virgin Mary,
at midnight,
in Bethlehem,
in the piercing cold.
In that hour vouchsafe, O my God,
to hear my prayer and grant my desires,
[here mention your request]
through the merits of Our Savior Jesus Christ,
and of His blessed Mother. Amen.


Photo credit: Advent Wreath in St. Mary's Cathedral in Tokyo, Japan. Photo by Zoltan Abraham (c) 2017

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Birthday Party for Mother Mary

September 8 is the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Catholic Church. Tonight, my wife and I attended a birthday party for our Holy Mother at the home of fellow parishioners. We started with a Rosary, then had dinner, cake, and a toast in honor of Our Lady. Such a wonderful evening!
























Saturday, September 8, 2018

The Church of Santa Anna Marks the Birthplace of the Virgin Mary

September 8 is the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Church of Santa Anna in Jerusalem marks the spot where, according to tradition, Our Lady was born. The fortress-like stone church, dating from the Crusader era, is especially known for its superb acoustics. (Read more at See The Holy Land.)

















Next to the Church of Santa Anna is the Pool of Bethesda, where Jesus cured a paralytic, as described in chapter five of the Gospel of John. (Read more about the history of the Pool of Bethesda at Sea the Holy Land.)













The Church of Santa Anna is also near St. Stephen's Gate, where, according to tradition, St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was killed by stoning. St. Stephen's Gate is also known as Lions Gate and Sheep's Gate.









Pictures from my trips to the Holy Land.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

In Medjugorje with Julie

Two months ago, my wife, Julie, returned to the practice of the Catholic faith, after 33 years of being away. Her return journey started one year ago, on September 2, in Medjugorje, when she had some powerful experiences on Apparition Hill, where the initial apparitions of the Virgin Mary are said to have happened in 1981, and where many of the ongoing apparitions are also said to be taking place. Below are pictures from our experience in Medjugorje.

She wrote about the story of her return at her blog: The 32 Year Minute


Julie after her experiences on Apparition Hill.



In the home of Vicka, one of the visionaries. The home is now open for anyone as a place of prayer. The statue in the background marks the spot where Vicka is said to have experienced dialy visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary for years. The spot was charged with incredible spiritual energy.



The home of Vicka, one of the visionaries. The home is now open for anyone as a place of prayer.



The statue of the Queen of Peace at the site where the apparitions are said to have started. The statue was a gift of Korean Catholics to Medjugorje.



Pilgrims pray at the statue of the Queen of Peace on Apparition Hill.



Stuate of the Queen of Peace overlooking Medjugorje.



Stuate of the Queen of Peace overlooking Medjugorje.



Stuate of the Queen of Peace overlooking Medjugorje.



There is no path leading up to Apparition Hill. Pilgrims must climb over jagged rocks to reach the shrine above.



View from Apparition Hill.



On the third day of the apparitions, Marija, one of the visionaries, is said to have had a vision of Mary standing in front of a wooden cross on this spot on Apparition Hill. According to her, the vision relayed the following message: "Peace, peace, peace! Be reconciled! Only peace. Make your peace with God and among yourselves. For that, it is necessary to believe, to pray, to fast, and to go to confession." The wooden cross now at the site was placed there in later years to commemorate this vision.



On the third day of the apparitions, Marija, one of the visionaries, is said to have had a vision of Mary on this spot on Apparition Hill. According to her, the vision relayed the following message: "Peace, peace, peace! Be reconciled! Only peace. Make your peace with God and among yourselves. For that, it is necessary to believe, to pray, to fast, and to go to confession." A part of this message is on the plaque next to the cross in Croatian.



Plaque bearing words attributed to the Virgin Mary on the third day of the apparitions in 1981.



Crowds wait in preparation for an apparition of the Virign Mary to the visionary Mirjana, who is said to be experiencing apparitions on the second of every month.



Statue of the Queen of Peace by the Blue Cross, where Mirjana is always situated when she is said to be experiencing a vision of Mary on the second of each month.



Julie climbing up to the shrine on Apparition Hill. Given her weak back and knees, a climb like this would normally cause her a lot of pain. But she felt no pain during the climb or after she descended from the hill.



With Julie at the shrine on Apparition Hill.



The Church of St. James in Medjugorje. Interestingly, long before the alleged apparitions started, a church far too big for the town was constructed in the town center. The church was also named after St. James, the patron saint of pilgrims. Since the visions are said to have started, an estimated 40 million pilgrims have traveled to Medjugorje.



St. James Church in Medjugorje.



St. James Church in Medjugorje.



St. James Church in Medjugorje.



Interior of St. James Church in Medjugorje. Interestingly, no image was placed behind the altar in the original design. Perhaps an image of Our Lady of Medjugorje will go there one day?



Statue of the Virgin Mary inside St. James Church in Medjugorje. Some of the early visions are said to have taken place inside the church.



Stained glass windows inside St. James Church in Medjugorje.



St. James Church at night.



The exterior altar behind St. James Church.



Italian language Sunday Mass at the exterior altar behind St. James Church.



Many priests concelebrate at the Italian language Sunday Mass at the exterior altar behind St. James Church.



The exterior altar behind St. James Church.



Statue of the Virgin Mary inside exterior altar behind St. James Church.



Panel from a Rosary walk behind St. James Church.



Panel from a Stations of the Cross walk near St. James Church.



Abstract crucifix behind St. James Church.



Julie in Medjugorje.



Julie by the Blue Cross, where Mirjana is said to be experiencing visions of the Virgin Mary on the second of each month.



Statue of the Queen of Peace at the square in front of St. James Church.



Statue of the Queen of Peace at the square in front of St. James Church.



Statue of the Queen of Peace at the square in front of St. James Church.



Statue of the Queen of Peace at the square in front of St. James Church.



Statue of the Queen of Peace at the square in front of St. James Church.



Street sign in Medjugorje.



Street sign in Medjugorje.



The image of Our Lady of Medjugorje painted on the basis of descriptions by the visionaries. The image is displayed inside the social hall of St. James Parish. The visionaries say that the image they see is far more beautiful than the painting.



Sunset in Medjugorje.



Cross Mountain at the outskirts of Medjugorje, where a giant concrete cross was erected by the townspeople, decades before the apparitions are said to have started.



Cross Mountain.



The way up to Cross Mountain is also full of jagged rocks.



The way up to Cross Mountain is also full of jagged rocks.



The Stations of the Cross line the way up to Cross Mountain at intervals.



The view from Cross Mountain.



The view from Cross Mountain.



The giant concrete cross atop Cross Mountain.



At the top of Cross Mountain.



Statue of the Queen of Peace overlooking Medjugorje, the town where she so clearly reigns.