Friday, November 29, 2019

Otherwordly Peace and Vibrant Faith Characterize Medjugorje

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary, Queen of Peace, pray for us!

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Help Change the Internet with the Sacred Heart Social Media Challenge

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

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

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

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

Prayer of Consecration to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

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

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

Learn more about Enthronement to the Sacred Heart.

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

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

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

What Catholics Can Learn from the Game of Thrones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Seven Weeks of Easter: Suggestions for a Catholic Celebration of Eastertide

The Catholic Church celebrates Easter for seven weeks, all the way from Holy Saturday to Pentecost. Long after the discounted chocolate eggs and bunnies have disappeared from the store shelves, Catholics still sing Easter songs and reflect on Easter-themed readings at Mass. But as the popular culture quickly moves on from Easter, it's tempting for Catholics to do the same in their everyday lives, doing nothing in particular to mark the season. So let us look at how we can make Eastertide a period of special celebration, not just for one day, but for seven full weeks.

Decorations: Enrich your home with Easter decorations, but wait until Easter Sunday, or at the earliest Holy Saturday to display them, so as to preserve the Lenten atmosphere up to that point. Make sure that you include explicitly Catholic symbols in your decorations, such crosses, images of Christ, and Eucharistic symbols. Spring-themed decorations are fine in and of themselves, as a symbol of the new life we receive through the death and resurrection of Christ, but we shouldn't let spring imagery take the place of the explicitly Catholic imagery in our Catholic homes.

At the same time, some images that seem like purely natural spring motifs have deep Catholic significance. Lamb imagery symbolizes Christ as the lamb of God, who offered himself as the Paschal sacrifice. Lambs also signify the faithful, whom Christ the Good Shepherd gathers in his flock.

But what about the Easter bunny and Easter eggs? Some would argue that both of these are pagan symbols, and therefore should be shunned, but they both actually have Catholic roots. The ancients believed that bunnies could multiply through parthenogenesis, that is to say, through virgin birth, and therefore, the rabbit became a sign of virginal purity, symbolizing especially the purest woman, the Blessed Virgin Mary. Given Our Lady's special connection to the Lord, the symbol of the bunny became associated with Easter.

Easter eggs have even more ancient roots, going back to the earliest days of the Church. The hard shell of the eggs symbolized the tomb of Christ, and the egg emerging out of the shell signified the resurrection of Christ. Later, as Lenten practices became quite strict, Catholics gave up eating all animal products, including eggs from Ash Wednesday until Easter Sunday. Since at Easter they could eat eggs again, eggs became an important part of Easter celebrations, both in terms of food, but eventually also for decorations. The exquisite painting of eggs became a special form of folk art associated with Easter. Images of newly hatched chicks also tie into this symbolism of the resurrection.

Among the decorations, you could also include a Resurrection Set, an Easter equivalent of the Manger Scene. You can find some pre-made ones online, but you can build your own too. You could use rocks to represent the hill of Golgotha. Here you could place a cross or three crosses. Next to it, you could use rocks to make an empty tomb. Small statues of Christ, the Virgin Mary, angels, and some other sacred figures can depict the Resurrection narratives from the Gospels.

Make sure you leave your Easter decorations up all the way through Pentecost. Visitors might wonder why you have not yet gotten around to taking your Easter things down, but that could be a good conversation starter about the length and nature of Eastertide in the Catholic Church.

The Truth About the Easter Bunny

The Story of Mary Magdalene and the First Easter Egg

Easter Candy Centerpiece- The Empty Tomb!

Decorate Your Own Eggs: Dyeing Easter eggs is fun, especially if you have kids at home. Take some time before Easter to dye hardboiled eggs to be served up on Easter Sunday and in the following days. Add meaningful Christian symbols using paint or stickers. If you are more artistic, trying painting more elaborate designs on the eggs yourself. You can also get some beautiful painted wooden Easter eggs online or from some ethnic stores.

New Clothes: Many people indulge in new clothes and shoes before Easter. If you can, continue this tradition to get a new outfit to wear for the first time on Easter Sunday. Show your love and respect for the day by wearing something special.

Volunteer: Easter is not only the holiest time of the Church calendar, but it is also the busiest, busier than even Christmas. Every parish needs lots of volunteers for a variety of tasks: administrative and liturgical preparations, various ministers for the many different liturgies, clean-up after the crowds have gone home, etc. Contact your local parish and ask how you can help. Many hands make light work – and you are sure to have some skills that would be very useful amid all the work that needs to get done.

Triduum: The best way to enter into the liturgical celebration of Easter is to attend the Triduum liturgies of the Church. 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.

The Triduum liturgies, when done well, are beautiful, powerful, and deeply moving. They help us enter more deeply into the mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ, the central tenets of our faith. If you have not yet been to the Triduum liturgies before, find out when they are at your local parish and make sure to attend.

Easter Sunday Mass: The Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday counts as your Easter Mass, but continue your celebration by returning on Easter Sunday too. Join the multitudes to pray together and to share the Easter joy.

There will be many newcomers, or those who only attend on Christmas and Easter. Make sure to show them hospitality and kindness. Be patient with them if they take your favorite spot or disturb you somehow with their behavior. Help them feel welcome enough to want to come back the next Sunday too. If they are acting very inappropriately, commit to praying for them daily throughout the rest of the Easter season.

Easter Food Blessing: In some parts of the Church, Catholics observe the custom of the blessing of the Easter foods. The faithful bring to church some of the food they are planning to serve at their festive Easter meal. The priest prays over all the food and blesses it. If your parish observes this custom, take advantage of it, and bring some Easter dishes to be blessed. If the food blessing is not a custom at your church, ask the priest if he would be willing to offer this blessing either on Holy Saturday or perhaps after one of the Easter Masses.

Easter Dinner: Make your Easter meal a time of special celebration. Bring out your finest china. Prepare your best dishes. Gather with family and friends if you can. If you don't have loved ones in the area or friends who could celebrate with you, look to see if perhaps there is a community brunch in the area that you could attend.

If you are able to cook, try some traditional Easter foods. If you haven't already done so, look into the culinary traditions of your cultural background and try your hand at traditional Easter foods. If your research leads you to some other attractive Easter dishes too, feel free to experiment with these as well.

Easter Candle: During the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday, the priest lights the Easter fire. From the Easter fire, he then lights the Easter candle (also known as the Paschal or Christ candle), usually a candle of massive proportions, which then is lit at different moments during the year, until a new candle is blessed at the following Easter Vigil.

To connect your personal prayer life with the liturgical life of the Church, get a white pillar candle for your home and set it up in your prayer area. If you are good with crafts, you can decorate it with symbols relating to Easter. Light this candle during your prayer time every day in the Easter season. Also, set it on your dining table and light it for dinners until Pentecost.

Octave of Easter: Easter is one of the two feasts of the Catholic liturgical year (the other one being Christmas) that transpire over eight days, hence the designation "octave," meaning eight. While the Easter season goes on for seven weeks, the feast of Easter goes on for eight days. If you can, go to Mass every day during the Octave. Go to Adoration. Have a longer prayer time at home.

Also, keep all of these days festive in your home. Continue using your best china. Make special dishes. Dress up the dining table with flowers. Or eat at out at nice places to celebrate.

Divine Mercy Sunday: St. John Paul II designated the Second Sunday of Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday, in accordance with the request of Christ given to the Church through the visions of a Polish nun, St. Faustina. On this day especially, Catholics are encouraged to reflect on God's infinite mercy for the world. Despite the increasing decay of our society, God's desire is that we experience not destruction or punishment, but his mercy. He demonstrated his mercy for us through his suffering on Good Friday. Now he wants us to be cleanses and find true union with him.

During her visions of Jesus, St. Faustina was instructed to have an image of the Divine Mercy painted. The image depicts Christ with rays of white and red light coming from his heart. Underneath is an inscription that says: "Jesus, I trust in you." If you do not already have this image displayed in your home, do so on Divine Mercy Sunday.

As you prepare for this feast day, pray the Novena to the Divine Mercy starting on Good Friday. (A novena is a set of nine prayers, prayed over nine consecutive days leading up to a feast.) On Divine Mercy Sunday, or the Saturday before, go to Confession. Through the visions of St. Faustina, Christ promised a great outpouring of graces on those who go to Confession in connection with the Divine Mercy Sunday.

The primary prayer associated with the Divine Mercy devotion is the Divine Mercy Chaplet, prayed using a regular rosary. Pray this chaplet on Divine Mercy Sunday, and consider praying it throughout the rest of Eastertide.

The Divine Mercy

Divine Mercy Novena

Divine Mercy Chaplet

Learn from Your Lent: How did you manage with your Lenten commitments? If you gave something up, were you able to stick with your plan? If you failed, use that as a learning experience. Failures in our attempts to gain a greater sense of discipline over ourselves can highlight areas in which we need to grow. If I tried to give something up and was not able to, then perhaps whatever that is has too much control over me, and I need to invest more time and energy into breaking its hold over me. Perhaps I am dealing with stress and anxiety in the wrong way, and I need a course correction. I need to reach out more for God's grace.

If you managed to break a bad habit during Lent, make sure you continue with your new sense of freedom from it during Easter. Eastertide is not a time to fall back into a bad habit you were able to give up. Likewise, if you were able to establish a new good habit during Lent, for example, praying more daily, then don't give it up now. Make it an integral part of your life and enjoy the sense of growth.

Special Meals on the Sundays of Easter: As Eastertide unfolds, make every Sunday a special day of celebration. As during the Octave of Easter, make dinner a special occasion, either by putting on a fancy meal at home or by going out to eat. On these days, gather with family and friends if you can.

Express Your Gratitude: During Eastertide, thank your priest and the many others who worked so hard to make everything happen at your parish. Priests and others involved in church work usually only hear from people when they are displeased. So be the one to give them a note of thanks. Send your pastor and his staff a card. Or send some emails of gratitude to the key people involved. Give a box of chocolates to the choir director to share with singers. Be creative.

Special Prayers: Some special prayers are associated with Eastertide. I have already talked about the Divine Mercy Chaplet. The Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary, which reflect on the glory of the resurrection, are especially meaningful to pray during the Easter season.

Also, by custom, the Regina Coeli is prayed in place of the Angelus during Easterside. Traditionally, the Angelus is prayed at 6:00am, noon and 6:00pm every day. I myself pray it when I wake up, then at noon and 6:00pm, as far as I can remember, and also right before I go to sleep. I always follow it up with the Memorare prayer. If you do not yet pray the Angelus, incorporate the Regina Coeli into your life during Eastertide, then switch to the Angelus prayer after Pentecost.

Regina Coeli Prayer

Angelus Prayer

Alleluia: During Lent, Catholics don't use the word "alleluia" at Mass or in other prayers. In fact, in some places, people actually write the word "alleluia" on a scroll, which they then bury until Easter, when the alleluia returns to our prayers. If you followed my Lenten suggestions, you may have done something to this effect yourself. If so, dig up the alleluia on Easter Sunday. But if you didn't, you can still celebrate the return of alleluia. In your daily prayers, sing some alleluia songs during Eastertide. If you are not much for singing, you can find many such songs on YouTube, which you can play during your prayer time or at other times of the day.

Connect with the Sacraments: As discussed above, the Church celebrates the three Sacraments of Initiation – Baptism, Confirmation, and First Holy Communion, during the Easter Vigil. Over the course of the Easter season, reflect on how these sacraments have shaped your life.

In baptism, we are called to be priest, prophet, and king. An entire book could be written on this sense of vocation. I offer here an article from Word on Fire:

Priests, Prophets, Kings by Bishop Robert Baron

In Confirmation, we receive the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit, which produce within us twelve fruits. During Eastertide, contemplate how these gifts and fruits are manifested in your life now, and pray for those you would like to see more clearly manifested in how you live your life.

Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit

7 Gifts and 12 Fruits Of The Holy Spirit That Sanctify Us And Make Us Into Other Christs

Attend Mass as often as you can during Eastertide. Make a habit of going to Adoration. If your local church does not have Adoration, respectfully inquire if that might be a possibility. If you have no access to formal Adoration, try to find a church where you can pray before the tabernacle. During your quiet reflection time, consider reading old spiritual book The Imitation of Christ, especially the meditations on the Eucharist.

Hopefully, as suggested, you had the chance to go to Confession at least once during the Lenten season. Build on that by going to Confession again during Eastertide, preferably during each month spanned by the season. Work on getting into the habit of going at least once a month.

As during Eastertide, pray for all those who are sick and are in need of healing. Pray also for the priesthood, especially in this time of crisis, when the healing and restoration of the priesthood is so badly needed. Pray for a priest or several priests by name. Pray also for all married couples to be able to live out their vocation to marriage, especially as our culture places more and more obstacles in the way of married life.

If you are married, focus on ways that you can enrich your marriage during Eastertide. Here some suggestions, based on ones I gave for Lent:

● 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 Eastertide focus.

● Consecrate your marriage to our Blessed Mother every Saturday during Eastertide. Traditionally, Saturdays are dedicated to our Blessed Mother, because, unlike the other disciples, who despaired, she believe in the resurrection and remained filled with faith.

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

● If you have kids, pray a blessing over your children every day during Eastertide, 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 Eastertide. 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.

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.

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.

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.

Contemplate the Resurrection:
At the core of our Catholic faith is our belief that Christ rose from the dead. We too will share in the resurrection of Christ. We too will rise from the dead. First, when we die, our soul will live on without our body until the Second Coming of Christ. At the Second Coming, our bodies will be raised from the dead and will be reunited with our souls. Our new body will be a perfected body, no longer subject to the limitations of physical life. Our new body will not age, will not suffer, and will never die.

As we deal with the vicissitudes of daily life, let us remember, during the Easter season, that our ultimate hope is the resurrection. Everything in this life will pass away. But we will be raised to a new life in Christ that will last forever.

Reach Out to Newly Baptized:
As discussed above, the Catholic Church administers the Sacraments of Initiation at the Easter Vigil. The people who are received into the Church at this time go through a lengthy initiation process. In the Easter season, they are starting their lives as new Catholics, or neophytes. Help them feel more at home by reaching out to them. Say hi and introduce yourself. Invite them to the different areas of church life you are involved in.

Wear an Easter Pin:
Various websites like Etsy sell pins with an Easter message, like "Happy Easter" or "He lives!" Consider wearing a pin like this throughout the Easter season, until Pentecost. People might ask why you are still clinging to Easter so long after the fact, but, as with the Easter decorations, such questions can be a great conversation starter to talk about the length and nature of Easter from a Catholic perspective.

Celebrate the Feasts: During Eastertide, the Church celebrates the feasts of a number of saints. Which saints exactly, will depend on the date of Easter. Look at a liturgical calendar for the season and take note of the feasts of saints that will be celebrated, especially of saints that you more particularly feel connected to. Make a point of doing something special for these days, such as going to Mass, spending time in Adoration, saying prayers to the saint, or having a special meal.

Focus on Mary in May: In addition to celebrating individual feast days of saints, we should focus on honoring the Queen of Saints, the Blessed Virgin Mary, during the whole of May, a month dedicated to her. Depending on where Easter falls all of May might be within Eastertide, but at least a portion of of it will be.

Make a crown of flowers, using either real or realistic looking plastic flowers. On May first, place the crown on a statue of Our Lady in your home, either inside or in your garden, depending on your situation. If you don't have a statue yet, this would be a great time to install one. Keep the crown on the statue until the last day of the month. (If you used real flowers, you will have to replace it probably more than once.) During your daily prayers, make sure you include Marian prayers, especially the Rosary. Consider making a commitment to make at least one post per day relating to the Virgin Mary on one of your social media accounts in order to bring the joy of Our Lady to others as well.

The Ascension: Traditionally, the feast of the Ascension has been celebrated on a Thursday, but in some parts of the Church, the feast has been transferred to Sunday. After the resurrection, Christ spent 40 days with the disciples, appearing at different times to different people. The Ascension marks the time when Christ completed this last phase of his earthly ministry and was taken up to Haven.

In addition to the celebration at Mass, you can celebrate the feast of the Ascension by driving or hiking to an elevated site, or going up to a very tall building, like a skyscraper, to remember Christ ascending from our realm to Heaven.

Novena to the Holy Spirit: The feast of the Ascension also signals that we are drawing near to the end of the Easter season, which is Pentecost. At Pentecost, we celebrate the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples, which marks the beginning of the Catholic Church. Prepare for this celebration of the profound outpouring of the Holy Spirit by praying a Novena to the Holy Spirit, prayed each night from Ascension Thursday to Pentecost.

Novena To the Holy Spirit

Wear Red on Pentecost: At Pentecost the Easter season comes to an end, but we are not done celebrating yet. On this day, we celebrate the birthday of the Church, as the power of the Holy Spirit is poured out upon the disciples. Since red is the color associated with the anointing of the Holy Spirit, wear red on this day both to church and throughout the day. If anyone asks why, you will have a great conversation started. As you take down the Easter decorations on this day, you can now decorate your home with images of flames and doves – both of which represent the Holy Spirit.

The Feasts Go On: Immediately after Pentecost we have two more significant feast days. The first is Holy Trinity Sunday, which is followed by Corpus Christi, also known as the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. On Holy Trinity Sunday, we should reflect on all that God has accomplished in the world, marked by our liturgical feasts from the incarnation of Christ at Christmas, to reflections on the earthy ministry of Christ in ordinary time, to the institution of the Eucharist on Holy Thursday, to the redemption of the world on Good Friday, to Christ's triumph over death and all evil through his resurrection on Easter Sunday.

On Corpus Christi, we should reflect on what is yet to come – the Second Coming of Christ. As we await his coming and go about our daily lives seeking to live out his Gospel, we should remember that he is already with us body, blood, soul, and divinity in the Eucharistic bread and wine. Through our weekly, if not more frequent, reception of the Eucharist, we have the strength to carry our cross and to grow to love God with our whole being and our neighbor as ourselves.

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.

Seven Weeks of Easter: Suggestions for a Catholic Celebration of Eastertide PDF

Photo Credit: The Virgin and Child with Saint Catherine and a Shepherd, popularly known The Madonna of the Rabbit by Titian from the Louvre.

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.

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.