Showing posts with label Prayer. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Prayer. Show all posts

Tuesday, April 21, 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.


● 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.


● 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.


● 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.


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.


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.


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.

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!

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Hard-hitting Unplanned Unmasks Abortion Industry

Unplanned opens with a heart-rending sequence. Abby Johnson (played by Ashley Bratcher), the young director of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Texas, on whose true life story the film is based, is asked to assist with an abortion in her own facility, due to staff shortage. Even though she has worked at the clinic for years, and has recently become its director, she had never actually observed an ultrasound guided abortion procedure before. Her task now is to manage the ultrasound, which projects an image of the baby about to be aborted. She watches in horror as the baby struggles to get away from the suction tube. Her horror intensifies as she sees the ultrasound image of the baby break apart and disappear into the tube.

The inhuman spectacle is the turning point in Abby's life, her moment of conversion. We then see in flashback how her life unfolded up to this moment, going from the daughter of a pro-life family to a professional in the abortion industry, who, at the pinnacle of her career, receives an employee of the year award from Planned Parenthood. We also see where her conversion leads her, and the new life that awaits her as she becomes a pro-life advocate. Though the movie starts in darkness and is not afraid to confront horrors that our society does not want us to discuss openly, the story also offers hope and shows the power of love and forgiveness.

The pivotal ultrasound sequence described above, though CGI, is admittedly difficult to watch. Three other scenes are also very disturbing: At one point, Abby takes the RU486 abortion pill, leading to profuse bleeding, clotting, and agonizing pain, nearly causing her death. In another scene, we see a teenage girl nearly bleed to death due to complications from her abortion. At one point, we also witness the casual inspection of severed baby parts in a routine protocol done after each abortion to ensure that no parts of the child got left behind in the mother's body.

The above sequences are decidedly disturbing. Nevertheless, they are much less gory than many movies today, including ones with a PG-13 rating. Some viewers will find the images deeply upsetting. Others, inured to violence in movies, will be less affected. But if the images do not come to preoccupy our minds after watching the film, they definitely should. They should haunt our dreams. Since 1973, approximately 60 million children have been killed through abortion in the United States, a higher volume of death than even the greatest mass murders of human history have been able to engineer. If the movie has a fault, it is not that it is too gory, but rather that it is too gentle in depicting the reality of this large-scale slaughter, so casually accepted in our society.

But though the film is not as gory as it might have been, the story does much to unmask the reality of the abortion industry, specifically the world of Planned Parenthood. Unplanned pulls no punches in depicting the physical and emotional pain associated with abortion procedures, and the psychological scars that last a lifetime. The ultrasound sequence we see at the beginning is also especially significant because such images would not be seen by women seeking an abortion. Company policy prevents them from being shown the ultrasound of their child, lest they have second thoughts. The film also explores other ways that many women are pressured, bullied, misled, and lied to in order to get them to abort. We see that, far from seeking to make abortions rare, Planned Parenthood works to increase its abortion quotas, because abortion is big money. We see that abortion, in fact, is Planned Parenthood's chief source of income, hence the pressure to perform more and more.

At the same time, the movie doesn't shy away from depicting problems in the pro-life movement either. Some prolife protesters are shown as misguided or even mean-spirited, and definitely counter-productive. But Unplanned also explores highly effective forms of pro-life outreach, giving us a model for how it should be done. Above all, the film emphasizes the tremendous power of prayer in combating abortion. At one point, Abby discusses her observation that on days when people would pray outside the clinic, the number of no-shows to abortion appointments would dramatically increase. Prayer also plays a significant role in her conversion from a champion of abortion to a pro-life advocate.

No wonder secular forces have opposed this movie from the get-go. During the film's production, Disney, Sony, Universal, and Round Hill Music all refused to provide rights to some music for the making of the film. The MPAA gave the movie an unexpected R rating, despite the fact that Unplanned contains much less gore than many PG-13 movies. Ironically, in many places in the country, underage girls can get an abortion without parental consent, but they would require the consent of their parents to be able to see this movie about abortion. As Unplanned prepared to open, most TV networks rejected advertising for the film, and most secular critics predictably savaged it in their reviews. The day after the grand opening, Twitter suspended the promotional Twitter page for the movie for a portion of the crucial Saturday of opening weekend. Oddly (or perhaps not so oddly), the topic of the film did not start to trend on Twitter, despite a very high volume of engagement.

The secular efforts to sabotage the film should make us all the more determined to see it and to share it with others. In fact, Unplanned has been called the Uncle Tom's Cabin of the pro-life movement. Just like the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin exposed the realities of slavery, thereby turning public opinion in the North against that inhuman institution, so also Unplanned can help multitudes to see the truth about abortion. The power of the abortion movement has been in hiding that truth, disguising the grizzly reality of abortion through double-speak, obfuscation, and euphemisms. Unplanned breaks through that carefully choreographed facade, and brings us face-to-face with the true reality of what is actually happening in our society.

The secular institutions of our society will continue to try to hinder and suppress this film. Therefore, we must take it upon ourselves to spread the word. All churches should have viewings of Unplanned. All high school youth groups and adult formation programs should see it and discuss it. If any single work can galvanize our country to confront decisively the horror of abortion, it is Unplanned.

In addition to its essential message, Unplanned exhibits very high production value. The movie is well acted, and the story is told with great cinematic skill. Unplanned, put out by PureFlix, an online Christian streaming service, shows, along with other recent powerful Christian movies such as I Can Only Imagine and Paul: Apostle of Christ, that Christian filmmaking has, at long last, come of age. We can hope for many more well-made Christian productions to provide an alternative to Hollywood's agenda.

In closing, let me return to where I started, the CGI ultrasound sequence at the beginning of the film. The scene is disturbing not only because of the depiction of the dismembering of a living child, but also because of the image of the empty womb after the abortion. Where moments before there was a human child, now there is only darkness and emptiness. That image shows powerfully one of the saddest aspects of abortion – the missing children. How many parents have been robbed of children, how many grandparents of their grandchildren? How many children of their siblings? How many couples longing to adopt a child have been denied the opportunity to do so? How many great works of art have not been created, how many inventions have remained uninvented due to so many children being dismembered in the womb?

As I watched the film, these words of Scripture came to mind: "In Ramah is heard the sound of sobbing, bitter weeping! Rachel mourns for her children, she refuses to be consoled, for her children - they are no more!" (Jeremiah 31:15) I cried too during the film. Profusely. We should all cry, bitterly. And we should pray, and fast, and offer sacrifices, and speak out, and work for a society in which a mother killing her own child is no longer described as "women's health."


Twitter inexplicably suspends Unplanned movie account on opening weekend

Unplanned Official Site

Photo Credit: The photo included in this article is a promotional still circulating on the Internet.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Praying to St. Joseph for Healing and Peace

Let us pray to St. Joseph for healing and peace in our hearts, in our homes, in our families, in our communities, and in the world.

Prayer to St. Joseph after the Rosary
by Pope Leo XIII

To you, O blessed Joseph,
do we come in our tribulation,
and having implored the help of your most holy Spouse,
we confidently invoke your patronage also.

Through that charity which bound you
to the Immaculate Virgin Mother of God
and through the paternal love
with which you embraced the Child Jesus,
we humbly beg you graciously to regard the inheritance
which Jesus Christ has purchased by his Blood,
and with your power and strength to aid us in our necessities.

O most watchful guardian of the Holy Family,
defend the chosen children of Jesus Christ;
O most loving father, ward off from us
every contagion of error and corrupting influence;
O our most mighty protector, be kind to us
and from heaven assist us in our struggle
with the power of darkness.

As once you rescued the Child Jesus from deadly peril,
so now protect God's Holy Church
from the snares of the enemy and from all adversity;
shield, too, each one of us by your constant protection,
so that, supported by your example and your aid,
we may be able to live piously, to die in holiness,
and to obtain eternal happiness in heaven.


Source: USCCB

Photo Credit: The Death of St. Joseph at Immaculate Conception Church in Seattle by Zoltan Abraham (c) 2017.

Monday, March 4, 2019

7 Ways to Prepare for Lent during the Septuagesima Season

Traditionally, the third Sunday before Lent started a period of preparation for the Lenten season, called the Septuagesima season. The current, post-Vatican II calendar of the Catholic Church no longer recognizes this pre-Lenten period, but there is nothing to stop rank-and-file Catholics from observing it as a private devotion in order to gain a greater sense of focus in time for the start of Lent.

The three Sundays before Lent were traditionally called Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima Sundays, respectively, from the Latin words for 70th, 60th, and 50th. I will not go into details of the history of this naming convention here, but I will provide some links to further reading at the end. Suffice it to say that in the past the pre-Lenten period took its name from the first of these Sundays, Septuagesima.

So what should we do differently during these three pre-Lenten weeks? Let us explore seven ways that we can prepare for Lent during the Septuagesima season:

1. Self-examination: A large part of our Lenten discipline is the quest to improve in our character. Our repeated individual choices add up to form our habits. The aggregate of our habits forms of our character. Thus, if we want to change something about our character, we need to uproot at least one undesirable habit and create a new, life-giving one.

Lent gives us a period of six and a half weeks in which to accomplish this transformation, which is just enough time to change a habit, with focus and discipline. The preparation period of the Septuagesima season gives us an opportunity for self-examination, to discern which part of ourselves needs transformation the most. Many differed methods of self-examination have been developed over the years. Here, I will discuss three.

Do an examination of conscience every day during your prayer time. An examination of conscience is a review of our behavior, looking at different categories, to assess in what ways we have fallen short morally. Many forms of examination of conscience are available online. I will link here to one offered by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops:

A Brief Examination of Conscience

Another exercise you can do during the Septuagesima season is to reflect each day during your prayer time on one area of your life that you would like to improve upon. Make sure to consciously name an area for improvement each day. If you keep coming back to some of the same things, that gives you a good indication of where you should start making changes during Lent.

A more elaborate exercise involves concentric circles. The circles represent the human being. We might say that, while not everyone is a believer, everyone is a worshiper - everyone worships something, if not God, then someone or something other than God. We worship that which is in the center of our being. The exercise helps us to determine what is really in our center, what are the things that are further out from our center.

For the Septuagesima season, do the concentric circles in three stages. Print or draw two sets of circles for each week. The first week, take one set of circles and write in them what you discern to be in the center of your being at this stage of your life, putting them in the very center of the image. Then move from the center, writing down things further out in each circle. Some things that are not at all a part of your life you could put outside of the circles altogether. Next, take another set of circles and do the same exercise, but this time focus on what you would like to see in the center of your life and what you would like to see further out. The exercise will highlight areas of your life where you are falling short and where you could be working on improvements during Lent.

The second week of the Septuagesima season, take another set of concentric circles and do the same sort of exercise, but focusing on how you spend your money, putting the things you spend most money on in the center, and other things further out, according to how much money you spend on them. Next, do the same exercise, but this time focus on how you would like to spend your money, putting the things you would like to spend most on in the center, and the things you would like to spend less on further out.

Lastly, during the third week of the Septuagesima season, which is a shorter week, focus on time. Once again, start with a set of concentric circles and write in the center what you spend most of your time with. Next, write in the things you spend less time with, moving further and further from the center. Finally, do the same exercise, but focus on how you would like to spend your time, putting what you would like to spend most of your time with in the center, and the rest further and further out.

The idea behind all of these exercises is that self-awareness is the beginning of any meaningful transformation. We cannot work on fixing a problem in our lives until we acknowledge that it exists. Using the Septuagesima season to reflect on our areas of brokenness will help us to have a clear idea of where we need to focus once Lent begins.

2. Wean Yourself: An important part of the Lenten observance, is giving something up for the duration of Lent, such as a favorite snack or drink or activity. By giving something up, we develop a greater sense of discipline over our actions and our body. Also, giving something up can highlight just how dependent we are on creature comforts throughout the day. As we feel the sense of lack and emptiness left in us by not having our favorite treat or not watching our favorite show, we can use those moments to invite God more fully into our lives. The deprivation can help us refocus, so that we seek our comfort in God, rather than in our usual creature comforts.

Equally importantly, we can offer up the suffering caused by our self-denial for the well-being of others. An important principle of Catholic spirituality is that suffering accepted with good grace has a great deal of spiritual value, which we can offer 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.

At the same time, as we embark on a form of Lenten self-denial, we should be careful that we don't become angry, grumpy, or generally less functional as a result of our Lenten discipline. For example, if giving up coffee makes you unbearable to be around, you are defeating the purpose of your sacrifice. But this is where the period of the Septuagesima season can be especially helpful. If you know that giving something up cold turkey at the beginning of Lent would create problems, you can use the two and a half weeks of the Septuagesima season to wean yourself from that source of comfort or pleasure gradually. Going back to the coffee example, few regular coffee drinkers can give up coffee overnight without some serious withdrawal symptoms. But if you reduce your coffee intake gradually over the Septuagesima season, by Ash Wednesday you will be more ready to deal with the deprivation.

3. Celebrate: Our ancestors observed Lent much more strictly than we do. The regulations for fasting and for abstinence from meat were much more demanding. In times past, Catholics would engage in some form of fasting almost every day of Lent and also maintained an essentially vegan diet during the season. That is a far cry from today's regulations, which mandate abstinence from meat (but not all animal products) on the Fridays of Lent and Ash Wednesday, and fasting on just Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, with fasting being defined as one full meal, two smaller meals that add up to one meal, and no snacking in between – which is still eating better than much of the rest of the world on a good day.

Given the severity of their Lenten discipline, our Catholic ancestors liked to engage in some merrymaking before the Lenten season would start. They would stage costume parties and parades and would indulge in some fine foods. They had their last hurrah before the long season of self-denial would start. In fact, the word carnival, comes from a Latin word that literally means "farewell to meat." Some areas, like New Orleans, still cherish elaborate pre-Lenten celebrations.

The Church has always approved of merrymaking, as long as it is wholesome and in moderation. While the secularized pre-Lenten celebrations today tend to be over-the-top and overly self-indulgent, Catholics should feel free to have some good-natured fun before Lent. Throw a costume party. Indulge in some fine foods, like tasty meat dishes. Have a good time with family and friends. If you invite non-Catholic family or friends to your gathering, you can mention that such celebrations are traditionally done in anticipation of Lent and you can weave in some discussion of the meaning of the season of Lent.

Just bear a few things in mind as you party. Don't indulge in ways that would require regret and repentance later. If you are weaning yourself off of something, don't sabotage your own efforts in the course of your merrymaking. Also, remember that the celebrations during the the Septuagesima season would historically corresponded in degree to the severity of the Lenten discipline in which people would engage. So if you throw a good party, make sure you truly engage in some corresponding sense of self-denial during Lent.

4. Go to Confession: Catholics are required by Canon Law to go to Confession at least once a year if they are conscious of a mortal sin. Of course, it's good to go to Confession much more often. At least once a month is a good practice, especially on the first Saturday of the month, in order to be able to participate in the Five First Saturdays devotion.

A lot of Catholics go to Confession twice a year, during Advent and Lent. Lent is definitely a good time to go to Confession. But I would recommend doing so already before Lent starts. In fact, the last three days before Lent have historically been known as "Shrovetide" in English, from the word "shrive," an older English word meaning Confession. As the name Shrovetide suggests, traditionally Catholics would go to Confession in the days leading up to Ash Wednesday. By doing so, you can start with a clean spiritual slate at the beginning of Lent and can focus on uprooting the sinful habits you had just confessed, replacing them with spiritually life-giving practices.

5. Make Your Home Decor More Stark: During Lent, decorations inside Catholic churches are kept to a bare minimum to signify the sense of self-denial and penitence characteristic of the season. Do the same at home. Remove some of your usual decorations until Easter. As the Easter season begins, bring them back, with additional Easter decorations.

6. Bury the Alleluia: During Lent, we do not use the word "alleluia" in the Catholic Church. In fact, in the pre-Vatican II liturgy, the use of alleluia was already discontinued starting with Septuagesima Sunday. Alleluia is a word of celebration and joy going back to biblical times. By depriving ourselves of this word during Lent, we highlight the sense of penitence and self-denial during the season. Then, when the alleluia returns at Easter, our celebration of the Resurrection is all the more joyful.

One old custom in the Catholic Church is to write the word "alleluia" on a scroll or nice piece of paper, then place it in a box and bury it as a way of saying good-bye to the word before the penitential season begins. The box would then be dug up and opened at Easter.

If you have a place where you can bury such a box, do so on Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday. If you don't have an area where you can bury something, you could place the box on a shelf, indicating that the "alleluia" has been put away until Easter Sunday arrives.

7. Celebrate Fat Thursday and Fat Tuesday: As Lent approaches, Catholics traditionally indulge in some foods that they will go without during the penitential season. Two specific days of such feasting are Fat Thursday, which is the last Thursday before Ash Wednesday, and Fat Tuesday, which is the day before Ash Wednesday. On Fat Tuesday specifically there was a custom of using up the remaining animal fats, which would not be consumed again until Easter. Many Catholics would make pancakes on Fat Tuesday, since pancakes were an easy way to use up all the animal fats.

I hope you found the above suggestions helpful. Let me know if have other suggestions for preparing during the Septuagesima season. Wishing you a blessed, spiritually enriching Lenten season!

Further Reading:

What is Septuagesima?

What Are Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima Sundays?

How to pregame Lent: Septuagesima, Carnival, and Shrovetide

Fat Thursday: Poland’s Tastiest Tradition

15 Indulgent Recipes for a Festive Fat Tuesday

39 Recipes to Splurge on for Fat Tuesday

Photo Credit: Ozette Loop on Olympic Peninsula by Zoltan Abraham (c) 2018.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Ember Days Offer a Sense of Focus Before Christmas

Keeping the Ember Days is an old tradition in the Catholic Church. The Ember Days are four sets of three days of fasting, abstinence from meat, and extra prayers, undertaken during different weeks of the year, known as Ember Weeks, scheduled as follows:
- Between the third and fourth Sundays of Advent
- Between the first and second Sundays of Lent
- Between Pentecost and Trinity Sunday
- During the week following the first Sunday after the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, which is held on September 14.

The Ember Days were originally associated with agricultural festivals, and they appear to have developed as the Church sought to Christianize pre-Christian traditions when possible, so that as the people of Europe were converting to Christianity, they could still maintain some of their old customs, now filtered through the perspective of their new faith. As practiced by Christians, the Ember Days had three specific goals: 1) to give hanks to God for the gifts of nature, 2) to teach the faithful to use those gifts in moderation, and 3) to assist the needy. Traditionally, Ember Days have involved fasting and abstaining from meat on the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of the week in question. Special Masses would also be said on these days. Additionally, the Church developed the custom of performing ordinations during Ember Weeks.

The Ember Days are no longer mandated in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Catholic Church. However, nothing prevents rank and file Catholics from observing the Ember Days as a private devotional practice. The Ember Days of Advent (which this year are December 19, 21, and 22) can be an especially good way of focusing on spiritual priorities just before the celebration of Christmas. Below are some suggestions for how you can observe the Ember Days of Advent:

Fast: Fasting has always been an integral part of Christian spirituality. Fasting helps us to gain a deeper sense of self-control and helps us to reorder our priorities. Fasting is also an essential weapon in spiritual warfare. Regrettably, since the Second Vatican Council, the Western part of the Catholic Church as effectively abandoned fasting as a discipline, leaving only two fast days, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, when Catholics are obliged to consume no more than one meal, supplemented by two small meals that add up to no more than one full meal, with no snacking outside of these three meals. You might choose to observe the Ember Days by applying these fasting rules to the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of Ember Week during Advent. Or you might choose to do more. For example, you might choose to have only bread and water on one of the days. Alternatively, you could have bread and water only on Wednesday and Friday, while applying the less stringent rules on Saturday. Or, if you are experienced at fasting, you might engage in a stricter discipline on all three days.

Abstinence from Meat: If the fasting rules you apply to Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of Ember Week would allow you to eat a meal with meat in it, take on an additional sacrifice by giving up meat as well. Treat this day as a Friday during Lent.

Prayer: Say some extra prayers on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of Ember Week. For example, say an extra Rosary or Divine Mercy Chaplet. Do some extra readings from the Scriptures. If possible, go to Mass on each of these days. Also, if possible, spend time in Adoration at least one of the three days. Go to Confession on the Saturday of Ember Week.

Thanksgiving: List at least five things you are grateful for on each of these three days.

Helping Those in Need: On each of the three days, do something to help those in need. Perhaps a member of your family needs some extra help. Perhaps one of your friends is struggling and could use some sort of assistance. Or help someone you don't know.

If you embrace the celebration of the Ember Days of Advent, and allow yourself to have this altered sense of focus, you can be sure that Christmas will be a much more spiritually fulfilling time, and you will receive an abundance of blessings.

Sources and further reading:

Fr. Alek Schrenk's Thread on the Ember Days

How observing the Ember Days can enhance your spiritual life

Wikipedia Entry on the Ember Days

Photo credit: Forest on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State by Zoltan Abraham (c) 2018

Monday, December 17, 2018

The O Antiphons - The Final Catholic Countdown to Christmas

A special and very beautiful prayer tradition is associated with the last seven days of Advent in the Catholic Church. The Vespers prayers for December 17 - 23 each include what is called an O Antiphon particular to each day (so called because each antiphon begins with the vocative "O," followed by a title associated with Christ, derived from Scripture). In the post-Vatican II liturgy of the Church, the O Antiphons are also used during the Alleluia verses corresponding to each day. In Medieval English tradition, the O Antiphons included an eight one, with the sequence starting on Dec 16 to allow for the addition.

Below, I include a video rendition of each antiphon. To read more, visit the Wikipedia entry on the O Antiphons.

December 17: O Sapientia

December 18: O Adonai

December 19: O Radix Jesse

December 20: Clavis David

December 21: O Oriens

December 22: O Rex Gentium

December 23: O Emmanuel

Medieval English O Antiphon for December 23: O Virgo Virginum

As mentioned above, in Medieval English tradition, the O Antiphons started on December 16 and an 8th one was added on December 23. (Please note: The video below inaccurately states that this antiphon was used on December 24).

Photo Credit: The 14-pointed star marking the site of the birth of Christ inside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem by Zoltan Abraham (c) 2016.

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

Friday, August 31, 2018

How the Seven Sorrows Rosary Came into My Life

I discovered the Seven Sorrows Rosary devotion only recently and rather unexpectedly. In 2017, I was preparing to lead a Marian Pilgrimage to Portugal, Spain, and France. It just so happened that we scheduled our pre-departure Mass for the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. On our pilgrimage, as we traveled through Portugal and Spain, we saw some powerful depictions of Our Lady of Sorrows – life-sized figures, dressed in beautiful garments, with seven swords protruding from Our Lady’s heart.

In the Gospel of Luke, the Prophet Simeon states: "Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted, and you yourself a sword will pierce, so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed" (Luke 2:34-35). The sword has been seen as a symbol of the Virgin Mary’s suffering. Historically, the Church has identified seven specific sorrows in her life, which are sometimes depicted with seven swords piercing her heart.

I took note of these imposing statues, but I did not think much of them, or of the underlying devotion, until we reached Santiago de Compostela. I was sitting at the Pilgrim’s Mass in the famous cathedral, when I started reflecting on just how much sorrow life entails. "Isn’t life one long Pilgrimage of Sorrow?" I pondered. That's when I thought of Our Lady of Sorrows, and I started reflecting on the theology behind the devotion. As the Mother of God, the Virgin Mary was more connected to Christ than any other human being, and therefore she shared in the suffering of Christ in a unique way. We can safely say that no human being, other than the human nature of Christ, suffered as much as Mary did. Therefore, she understands our sorrow full well, and, given that she is the Mother of the Church, she is always eager to help us if we call upon her.

I went away from that Mass with a sense of connection to this devotion. Later that night, as I was browsing in the shops of Santiago, I came across a statue of Our Lady of Sorrows, which I purchased for my collection of images of Our Lady. But as to just how I was to practice my newfound devotion, that answer came to me only after my return.

The same day I left on my trip with the pilgrimage group, a friend of mine had set out on a private pilgrimage to Italy, to walk in the footsteps of St. Francis. After we had both returned, we compared notes on our experiences. My friend, as it turns out, had visited the shrine of Our Lady of Sorrows in Italy, and, without knowing anything that was transpiring in my heart, she got for me a Seven Sorrows Rosary, a special type of rosary designed specifically for this devotion. She told me that she had never actually gotten a rosary before, but when she was at that shrine, she felt moved to get one for me.

Two days later, I received in the mail another one of these special rosaries from someone who had been on the pilgrimage with me. I felt like our Blessed Mother was telling me something. I quickly learned how to pray the Seven Sorrows Rosary, and I incorporated it into my daily prayer life.

In the three months following, the Seven Sorrows Rosary would be especially comforting for me. My father had been battling terminal cancer, and as he reached the final stage, I often thought of him as I reflected on the sorrows of Our Blessed Mother. I felt her give me the peace and strength I needed. I also introduced my father to this devotion, and he resonated with it at once. He started praying this special rosary while he still could in his final weeks. Though he was very weak by the end, he managed to get me a beautiful Seven Sorrows Rosary set for Christmas, as his last gift to me. During his final night, on the eve of January 2, I kept vigil by his bedside, praying. I had just finished reciting the Seven Sorrows Rosary when he passed. I am confident that Our Lady came for him to take him home to Our Lord.

I feel that I will always cherish this special devotion. I also feel moved to tell others who might have a similar inclination about the many blessings the Seven Sorrows Rosary can offer.