The Communion And Friendship of Saints

A saint, as defined by the Catholic Church, is one who has “preceded us into the kingdom, especially those whom the Church recognizes as saints, share in the living tradition of prayer by the example of their lives, the transmission of their writings, and their prayer today.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2683)

For some of us, a saint is a plaster statue, pious-looking but not very human. Or a saint might be that person you studied in middle school so you could pick out a cool Confirmation name. But if this is where our relationships with the saints begins and ends, we miss out on so much.

Scripture tells us (in Hebrews) that we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.” That’s the saints. They witness to us the great love of God. They loved God, know that God loves them, and want others to know that love. That’s what the saints all have in common.

Yet, if you study the saints, you will find as many personalities, gifts, life choices and challenges as there are stars in the sky. And this is the Church’s gift to us: the saints – our “big” brothers and sisters in faith – show us how to love God, love others and do God’s will in many different ways, many different walks of life.

Take for instance St. Gianna Molla. She was a 20th century woman: a doctor, a wife and mother, an athlete. She loved her family and sought to serve God in her work. She also loved life: the life of the family and the life of the  unborn. When she was pregnant with her fourth child, it was discovered that she had a uterine tumor. Any treatment of the tumor would likely result in the death of the baby, so Gianna and her husband chose to continue the pregnancy. A little girl was born healthy, but Gianna lost her life. She told her doctors: “If you must decide between me and the child, do not hesitate: choose the child – I insist on it. Save the baby.” St. Gianna Molla is a powerful witness for the pro-life movement, for modern mothers who seek to balance work and home, and for those who are faced with frightening medical decisions.

St. Hildegard of Bingen is also a saint and female, but that might be all she has in common with Gianna. Hildegard lived in the 12th century and was a Benedictine nun (the Benedictines were known then for their rather strict way of life.) She received visions from God, which she said made her see her fellow humans as “living sparks” of the love of God. She loved Scripture and loved helping others understand it. She was a scientist, a musician, and founded convents. Her writings are so profound that Pope Benedict XVI declared her a “Doctor of the Church,” a title given to only 35 saints in the Church’s history. A Doctor of the Church is someone whose life work has contributed greatly to theology and/or doctrine of the Catholic Church.

These are just two examples of saints, but these two women show the depth and breadth of the saints. A wife and mother, a nun. A modern doctor, a medieval seeker of healing in plants. An athlete, a musician.

The saints are not plaster people. They are real. They struggled with the same things we struggle with: family issues, doubts in faith, anger, jealousy, money problems. They knew challenges and disappointments, hostility from those who were supposed to support them and those who questioned their devotion as maybe just a little … crazy. For whatever you struggle with, there is a saint who has “been there and done that.”

Catholics do not pray to the saints. We pray to God alone. But just like you might ask a friend to pray for an issue you’re struggling with, we ask the saints for their intercession before the throne of God. They now live eternally in God’s presence, so who better to buddy up with?

A caution: saints are not magical. The Church warns us against going beyond devotion to a particular saint and veering off into some sort of enchantment: “If I say just the right words to just the right saint, I’ll get what I want.”

Adoration is the worship and homage that is due to God alone. The Saints are human like you and I.  They are not divine. Adoration of the saints has never been nor will ever be part of Catholic teaching or prayer. We venerate the saints.

That being said, we are strongly encouraged to make friends with the saints. (Keeping in mind that they are not dead, but alive in Christ!) We often refer to “patron saints;” these are the saints we may be named after, the saint on whose feast day we were born, that person you chose for your Confirmation name are all patrons. We should have a relationship with them. The Church encourages us to learn about the saints: read biographies, read the saints’ own writings, emulate how they prayed. In this way, we learn how to more and more become holy: these brothers and sisters in the faith become examples of how to overcome our sinfulness, despite all the human challenges we face.

As we pray when we pray the Litany of the Saints, may all the holy men and women pray for us!


“My Sheep Hear My Voice”

Yesterday was Good Shepherd Sunday, celebrated on the Fourth Sunday of Easter. According to the Gospel of John, chapter 10, Jesus proclaims that he is the gate for the sheep, the good shepherd. My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.

Now all of this would have made a great deal of sense to the people Jesus spoke to directly. They knew all about sheep. For those of us who live in a world of minivans, suburban cul-de-sacs, grocery stores and the internet, the closest most of us come to sheep is buying a new sweater at the mall. A little knowledge of sheep will help clarify what Jesus is really telling us.

First, sheep are completely defenseless. They can’t run fast, nor can they fight predators. A shepherd and a sheep dog are necessary to keep predators away.

Sheep are also naturally social. They like being around each other and around people, so long as they are well treated. Sheep cannot thrive in isolation.

Sheep are followers. The sheep that starts walking first is the leader – not necessarily because it’s the strongest or smartest, but because it started to walk first. Sheep – sometimes to their peril – follow.

Sheep like the predictable and they scare rather easily. A good shepherd is gentle, firm and keeps the sheep calm.

Sheep have a reputation for being, well, rather … dumb. Of course, they are not rational beings, with the ability to make decisions based on facts, past experiences, the advice of others, etc. They simply do sheep things.

With all this in mind, Jesus as the Good Shepherd perhaps will be more meaningful. He is saying to us that He will defend us against evil. He is telling us that He knows we do not thrive in isolation; His church, his flock, must depend on each other in order to thrive as we seek His will.

Jesus knows we human beings are followers. We warn our tweens and teens about peer pressure, but we can all fail prey to it. We need to know that we follow Christ.

While humans are not dumb, we do dumb things. We don’t always do what we know is best. We make stupid, hurtful decisions. We sin. Jesus knows this about us. And He wants better for us, so He asks us to follow Him. He will not lead us astray.

The hymn, The King of Love My Shepherd Is, has this lovely verse:

Perverse and foolish, oft I strayed,
but yet in love he sought me;
and on his shoulder gently laid,
and home, rejoicing, brought me.

We are led astray, but Christ is gentle and loving. He seeks out His sheep, and brings us home.


God Is Faithful To Us Even In The Fires Of Life

The first reading for Mass today is one that grabs our imagination and attention. In the book of Daniel, we hear the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (take a few minutes to read it here.)

King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon has set himself up as a god in Babylon, and is forcing the Jews living in exile there to treat him as such. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are having none of it. Their reward for their faithfulness to God? They get shoved into a furnace.

For most of us, the idea of suffering such a horrific fate because of our religious beliefs is absolutely unthinkable. We give almost no thought to the luxury of going to Mass whenever and wherever we wish, of wearing a cross, a crucifix or some other symbol of our faith openly, or having a religious item on our desk at work.

Yet so many Christians in our world today are suffering the fate of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. On March 10 in Washington, D.C, a joint project between the Knights of Columbus and a group called In Defense of Christians (IDC) was presented at a press conference. Reporters and aide workers gave witness to the  genocide of Christians in the Middle East by ISIS. The stories are hard to bear, but they remind us that the those faithful to God, like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, are still called upon to hold on to their faith in impossibly brave manners.

I went to Iraq three weeks ago and met a 3-year-old girl whom ISIS members had thrown against a wall. She can no longer talk. Where was her father? He had been murdered, as he was a Christian,” stated Juliana Taimoorazy, an Assyrian Christian and president of Iraqi Christian Relief Council.

“The report has unearthed many stories that the world has not heard,” IDC President Toufic Baaklini told the packed room. “Like the story of Christian women who have been forced into sexual slavery and listed on ISIS slave menus that put a price on ‘Christian or Yazidi’ women by age.”

Baaklini told the story of a woman named Claudia, who was captured and raped repeatedly after ISIS militants saw that she bore a tattoo of a cross. Another woman, Khalia, fought off ISIS militants as they attempted to rape captive girls and take a 9-year-old as a wife.

In the reading from Daniel, the men’s complete abandonment to the will of God, their raw and honest sorrow for their sins and the sins of their people, and their ability to praise God under torturous circumstances end up changing the mind of the king. He releases the men from the furnace, and he wishes peace upon them and his people. (The story continues, but  you’ll just have to read it yourself!)

It would be best for all if the horrors of persecution and genocide of modern-day Christians would have such a swift, decisive and positive solution. We do not know why God is asking this of his people in the Middle East. We do not know why God asked three young men in ancient Babylon to stand up for their faith and refuse to bow down to an idol. We do not know why God has allowed cancer to grow in the body of a loved one, or has allowed an accident which leaves a friend gravely injured.

The only thing we do know: Christ is always with us in our suffering. We are never, ever asked to be alone during hardship, trials, illness, even the torture we’ve discussed here. God is ours, and we are His people, forever and ever.

consistent prayer

4 Ways To Keep Your Prayer Life Consistent

St. Paul says we are supposed to pray always (Always?? Really?). However, most of us struggle to keep our prayer life consistent. We go through periods of intense prayer (and let’s face it, that’s usually when we need God to “do something” for us) and times when we drift away from prayer. How can we keep our prayer lives running smoothly, in order to stay in relationship with God?

The chart below is a great one to print and tape to your bathroom mirror, your fridge, or near your computer. It “breaks down” your day of prayer into manageable pieces.

First, the morning offering. This is a traditional Catholic prayer that dedicates one’s day to God. It’s a reminder to ourselves that we want to serve God all day, in everything we do.

Next, 15 minutes (that’s it??) of spiritual reading. Of course, the Bible is terrific, but consider a book on a saint’s life, a book explaining some part of Catholic doctrine (such as a book on the Mass) or even a book you can read with your child.

The next one is probably that which we find most difficult: time spent in “mental prayer.” Part of developing a mature faith life means you spend time talking to God. You’d never consider creating a friendship with someone if you could never talk to them – we must do the same with God. Of course, it’s perfectly fine to use memorized prayers, but in order to form a healthy, rich relationship with Almighty God, we have to talk to Him. That means coming before Him with our sufferings, our joys, our praise, our gratitude. If this seems rather daunting, perhaps you can back up a step, and begin by reading a book on how and why we pray.

Finally, there is the nightly examination of conscience. Most of us know that we do an examination of conscience prior to going to Confession, but doing one every evening will truly help us become aware of our daily sins – even those small ones that we might otherwise shrug off. Now, this type of exercise is not meant to become a way to beat yourself up, but rather a way to recognize where you can daily improve your relationships with God and with other people.

With these four fairly simple steps, you can start making the ideal of “pray always” a reality.

prayer chart

stronger than our scars

Stronger Than Our Scars

You have bent down over our wounds and have healed us, giving us a medicine stronger than our scars, a mercy greater than our fault. Thus, even in sin, in virtue of your invincible love, served to raise us up to divine life. (Ambrosian Rite prayer)

A medicine stronger than our scars. That is profound. During Lent, many of us take the time to examine our weaknesses and our scars. But do we ponder the wondrous medicine that is the Cross?

Most of us have scars that are hidden, and we prefer it that way. We perceive our scars as weakness and failure. Sometimes they are: we sin. We do evil and fail to do good. We need the Sacrament of Reconciliation to heal our sin.

But some of our scars are ones life has left us with, through no fault of our own. We weep for our dead friends and family; we miss them and their loss is a scar on our heart. Perhaps our scars are borne from the addictions of others; we fear for the health and safety of loved ones who cannot seem to overcome their addictions to drugs or alcohol or pornography. Maybe we are in a marriage where one party is trying so very hard to be faithful and loving, and the other person wants out. And maybe we bear actual scars from disease, illness or accident – scars that cause us significant physical pain.

We think there is no medicine for these scars – no doctor can fix a broken heart or a parent’s tears. But Christ is the Great Physician, one who heals through the medicine of the Cross. Jesus was also a Man who Himself knew pain.

He was spurned and avoided by men,
a man of suffering, knowing pain,
Like one from whom you turn your face,
spurned, and we held him in no esteem.
Yet it was our pain that he bore,
our sufferings he endured.
We thought of him as stricken,
struck down by God and afflicted,
But he was pierced for our sins,
crushed for our iniquity.
He bore the punishment that makes us whole,
by his wounds we were healed. – Is. 53:3-5

By his wounds we were healed. That is the radical truth of our faith: God became Man, took our sins and scars upon Himself, and saved us. Yes, we sin and we must acknowledge our sin, but sin no longer means death. Indeed, we are stilled scarred, but Christ provides us a medicine stronger than our scars. There is nothing and no one who is greater than this truth, this Good News, this Christ.

Today, take some time to thank Jesus for the medicine He has provided you. Rejoice in the fact that – despite our afflictions – we are healed through Christ our Lord.


Heading Into The Tomb

During the season of Lent, we are acutely aware of death, it seems. The readings seem to have a sense of foreboding to them; we know we are getting closer and closer to Good Friday. In some of our churches, the holy water fonts are empty. The decor changes: instead of fresh flowers, there are cacti or simple, empty pots or even stones. We limit our feasting; we are on watch for death. We are, in a sense, headed for the tomb.

Catholic writer Heather King, in her book Redeemed: Stumbling Towards God, said this,

… I remember a homily that Father Jarlath at St. Thomas the Apostle once gave about the time Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead: he said we all have things in us that are from the tomb – old rotting resentments, griefs, sorrows – and when it is time to look at them, it’s a good idea to bring Jesus in with us.

Lent is about heading into the tomb. It is certainly about Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection (the Paschal Mystery, the Church calls it) but it’s also about acknowledging our own tomb. As King puts it, we all have that place in us where things are left to die. Maybe it’s a relationship that should have been mended a long time ago. Perhaps what is dying in us is our faith; life has worn us down and we wonder if God has forgotten us. Our tomb may be a place where we struggle with an addiction; we’ve buried our true self behind the rocks of alcohol or drugs or pornography.

Many people choose to remain in their tombs. They become embittered, they lose faith, they “die,” in a way. Some of us want to get out, but we don’t know how. After all, who can roll that huge stone out of the way so that light can stream in?

The only way out of the tomb is through Christ. He alone has conquered death and sin. He alone can raise us – as He did for Lazarus – from the grave. For some of us, it may be a matter of simply recognizing this and falling to our knees in thanksgiving. The vast majority of us need the Sacrament of Reconciliation to acknowledge our own sinful part of the tomb. And some of us will need professional help (a psychologist, a spiritual director) in order to sort out how we ended up in the tomb and how we can live our lives outside that tomb.

In John 11, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. When Lazarus’ sister Martha expresses some doubt about Jesus command to remove the stone from the tomb’s entrance, He says, “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?”

A tomb can be a frightening place. But if we bring Christ with us, we will see the glory of God. Jesus promised us, and so it will be.

holy ground

Walking On Holy Ground

For the third Sunday of Lent, the first reading proclaims the story of Moses encountering God in the burning bush. At first, Moses can’t make sense of what he’s seeing: a bush on fire but not being consumed by the flames. As he approaches, the voice of God cries out, and tells Moses to remove his sandals, for he is on holy ground.

Holy ground. A sacred place. The place where God is. Have you encountered that?

Every time we walk into a Catholic church, we are on holy ground. It is holy for one reason and one only: God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – resides there.

At every Mass, every day, around the world, Jesus is present in the Eucharist: Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. He is just as present at Mass as He is in Heaven. (Don’t try to wrap your head around that; it’s a mystery.) And since – in most churches – Jesus’ Body is kept in reserve in the tabernacle, Jesus is always there.

2,000 years ago, Jesus walked among the Jewish people. He taught and preached. He worked alongside his foster father, Joseph. He laughed and wept with his friends. He suffered and died. He conquered death. And every time we enter the doors of a Catholic church, Jesus is just as present there as He was on earth, 2.000 years ago. We truly are on holy ground.

That means we need to take care of how we enter, occupy and take leave of a Catholic church. When we enter, we bless ourselves with holy water and the sign of the cross. This reminds us of our baptism. We approach the altar with reverence, and genuflect towards the tabernacle (that is where Christ’s Body resides.) If the tabernacle is in a separate chapel, then we express our reverence by bowing towards the altar itself. We do the same when we leave. In between, we are reverent, respectful of God’s presence.

As we continue through the season of Lent, let us resolve to be mindful of the sacredness of our parish church, however humble or grand that building might be. It is holy ground.


How to pray

This Is How You Are To Pray

Today’s Gospel is Matthew 6:7-15. The disciples, those men and women who followed Jesus as He went about teaching and healing, hear His teaching on how to pray.

Keep in mind that these Jews lived a life prescribed by law: God’s law for His people. The food they ate, how it was prepared, what they wore, how and when they prayed were all spelled out for them. Yet here was this man, Jesus, who seemed to be turning everything they knew on its head. He tells them to quietly be generous, not to make “a scene” when they pray, but to go to their room and address God secretly.

Then Jesus tells them this:

“This is how you are to pray:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread;
and forgive us our debts,
as we forgive our debtors;
and do not subject us to the final test,
but deliver us from the evil one. If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you.
But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.” (Mt. 6:9-15)

This prayer is so familiar to most of us that it is tempting to merely skim through it. Many of us have said this prayer countless times in our lives. We know it “by heart.”

But is it on our heart? Is it etched into the very core of our being? Just before this passage, Jesus tells His followers not to rattle off prayers thoughtlessly, babbling away.

It’s not simply the words Jesus is teaching us to pray – it is how to pray. We are not to have a prayer life ruled by law after law after law. Rather, our prayer is about relationship. We are not begging for favors from a god of rain, or a god of harvest, or a god of fertility. No, we pray to Our Father: a Father who knows what we need before we even ask. We pray to a Father who provides for our most basic needs but also protects us from the fiercest evil. We pray to a Father who forgives.

Today, take some time to truly pray to Our Father. Don’t rush the words – pray them. Talk to your Father; He waits for you with tenderness and love.

Spending Time With The Suffering Servant

We know it’s a good idea to spend time during Lent reading and meditating over Scripture. But that can be overwhelming: where does one start? Is there one Biblical book that is “better” than another for Lent? What does it mean to “meditate on Scripture” anyway? Let’s take a look at the book of Isaiah, and the verses that refer to the Suffering Servant.

Even if the “Suffering Servant” doesn’t sound familiar to you, you will recognize the chapters of Isaiah that refer to him:

Here is my servant whom I uphold,
my chosen one with whom I am pleased.
Upon him I have put my spirit;
he shall bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry out, nor shout,
nor make his voice heard in the street.
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.
He will faithfully bring forth justice.
(Is. 42:1-3)

The Jewish listeners of this passage would recognize that Isaiah, the prophet, was referring to the Messiah, the Promised One of God, the One who would redeem humanity and save the nation of Israel. As Christians, we understand that Isaiah is foretelling the mission of Christ.

Of course, many Jews believed that the Messiah would be an earthly king, a man who would free Israel from the oppression of the Roman Empire. Yet, God’s plan would be that Emmanuel, God-With-Us, would be a servant, an example of mercy, love and justice, one who would wash the feet of his followers.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) offers a wonderful study of the Suffering Servant passages in Isaiah. You can find it here. Why not spend some time learning more about the Suffering Servant this Lent?

Book of Tobit

Journey through the Book of Tobit


The book of Tobit in the Old Testament is a fascinating story. It was likely written about 200 years or so before the birth of Christ, and it truly is a story, with a beginning, middle and end. It’s also a great book to undertake as Lenten reading. It’s not very long; one can easily read through it in an evening. (But take your time! There is a lot here to enjoy.)

Tobiah is the son of Tobit, the central figure, a pious Jew who keeps the Law. Tobit, through a rather outlandish event, is struck blind. This, along with thinking that his wife has stolen something, causes Tobit to beg God for death.

Meanwhile, in a distant town, a young woman named Sarah has had the unfortunate experience of being widowed – seven times, each time on the night of her wedding. People are starting to wonder if Sarah is not killing these men.

Now Tobit – hoping to retrieve some money so that he and his wife can be buried – sends Tobiah on a curious journey. He offers him a long list of “dos and don’ts” for the trip. As Tobiah starts off, he is joined by a man who introduces himself as Azariah, a kinsman of Tobiah’s, but he is really the archangel Raphael. (If this is sounding a bit like a soap opera, than you’ve got the right idea. This type of story would have offered a lot of entertainment to the Jewish listeners.)

One of the commands that Tobit has given his son is to marry while he is on this journey. “Azariah” steers him toward Sarah. Tobiah is a bit put off; isn’t this the woman whose husbands keep dying? But “Azariah” calms him and the two marry.

Chapter 8 of the book of Tobit has one of the most beautiful passages in the entire Bible: a prayer offered up by Tobiah and Sarah on the night of their wedding.

Blessed are you, O God of our ancestors;
blessed be your name forever and ever!
Let the heavens and all your creation bless you forever.
You made Adam, and you made his wife Eve
to be his helper and support;
and from these two the human race has come.
You said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone;
let us make him a helper like himself.’
Now, not with lust,
but with fidelity I take this kinswoman as my wife.
Send down your mercy on me and on her,
and grant that we may grow old together.
Bless us with children.

Clearly, this journey Tobiah must make is a peculiar one. An angel in disguise, a widow seven times over, the appearance of a large fish, the expelling of a demon … there’s never a dull moment!

While one could read this book as “just” a story, that would be missing the point. Tobiah must trust his father, his traveling companion, his new bride and ultimately God. And while strange things occur, tragedy abounds and things often are not as they seem, Tobiah trusts. He is faithful.

The prayer he prays with Sarah the night of their wedding blesses God, pledges Tobiah’s fidelity and begs for mercy and the grace of growing old together. Tobiah’s journey is much like what many of us face: family issues, health complications, strange characters to deal with and problems popping up on all sides. Tobiah’s example is a rich and powerful one: trust in God. Follow His will. Do good. Respect your family. Don’t be discouraged. And at the center of it all is love: love for parents, love for one’s spouse, love for God.

This Lent, do yourself a favor and read the book of Tobit. Travel with Tobiah and ponder how his story has meaning for your Lenten journey.