When Death Births Life: St. Bryce Missions Grows Out of a Family's Grief

The Mitchell Family “I went to the jungle thinking I was going to grieve, but God brought me there to heal,” author and full-time missionary Colleen C. Mitchell said as she sat on a stool in my kitchen, watching me prepare a pot of Crayfish Étouffée. Mitchell and I had met only a week earlier at a Catholic Trade Show in Chicago, but when I learned she was a native New Orleanian who would be coming through our hometown in a week, I insisted we get together. During our visit, Mitchell openly shared her story of heartbreak and grief, and how it led her family to a cloud forest in Costa Rica to serve as missionaries caring for the spiritual and physical needs of the indigenous Cabecar peoples.

Their journey to the jungle began in 2009 while Mitchell, her husband, Greg, and their six sons were living a normal, happy life as a Catholic homeschooling family. On what she called “a perfect homeschooling day,” tragedy suddenly struck when Mitchell found her three-month-old son, Bryce, unresponsive in his crib due to SIDS. Within a short time, the couple lost four more babies to miscarriage, leaving Mitchell completely shattered and irrevocably changed by the multiple heartbreaks and ensuing grief that had visited their lives.

Shortly after Bryce’s death, Greg became inspired to establish a non-profit organization in Bryce’s name for the purpose of sharing the Gospel. “I can’t say I opposed the idea,” wrote Mitchell in the exquisite new book that grew out of her grief entitled Who Does He Say You Are: Women Transformed by Christ in the Gospels.  “But I could not make logical sense of how you give your heart away when you are holding its shards in bleeding hands.”

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Still tentative about how they could help others while in so much pain themselves, Mitchell offered God and Greg a “weak-kneed” yes, and St. Bryce Missions was born. Not long after that, Greg visited Costa Rica on a business trip, coming home with a vision for their future that his wife had not imagined: moving their family to the Chirripo Mountains of south Central Costa Rica to minister to the unevangelized indigenous peoples who live on a government-provided reserve therein.

Making a radical leap of faith, Mitchell packed her family’s belongings and necessities into 12 suitcases, embarking “sight unseen on a journey of redemption” to the poorest area of Costa Rica, unsure of what lay before them. Three weeks into their new life in the remote jungle, tragedy struck again via the death of Greg’s mother, necessitating his departure from Costa Rica for three weeks. “It was then—as I sat broken-hearted, isolated and alone in the jungle with my boys, with no car, unable to speak Spanish, apart from everything and everyone I had known—that I realized I needed to get to know God in a new way.”

Mitchell spent long days sitting beside a running river with her Bible and journal in hand, meditating upon Gospel stories of Christ’s healing, transforming power as her boys played in the river’s clear waters. There the grieving mother began to hear Christ speaking life into her heart again, and it was there that she began to reclaim God’s vision of her by journaling the “tender mercies” the Lord gave her in prayer—the very journal entries that would eventually become the chapters of her beautiful new book.

“I began to own that even with all the cracks and broken places the last few years had wrought in me, I was beautiful and beloved to him, and I had a purpose. He wanted to use me,” she wrote. It would not take long for that purpose to be realized.

Mitchell began to notice that basic healthcare was inaccessible to the Cabecar women, forcing pregnant women to walk as many as ten miles while in labor trying to find a hospital in which to safely deliver their babies. Wondering how she could help, she hatched a plan in her mind to find and engage an existing organizational institution to solve the problem of making healthcare more accessible to these poor women. Again, God surprised her with an unimagined solution.

“One day in prayer, I heard God say, ‘Use what you have to meet this need,’” Mitchell told me as I sat listening in amazement. “You have a car, a house, and a way to get these people to the hospital. Share with them what I’ve given you.”

Mitchell said yes.

The very next day Mitchell and her husband encountered a Cabecar woman with an extremely sick baby who had already walked eight hours in the pouring rain to find medical help. They picked her up, drove her to the hospital, and stayed with her to make sure she received the care she needed, leaving their phone number with her in the event she had no way to get home upon the baby’s release from the hospital. The woman called the couple the next day, and ended up staying in their home for a week until the baby was stable enough to go home.

After this first encounter, the Mitchells put the word out that they were willing to help others, and more women began to show up. This influx eventually prompted the family to move to a larger home close to the hospital which sleeps 25 women in addition to their family of 7—bringing to life the St. Francis Emmaus Center, a home-based ministry that is only one of several initiatives St. Bryce Missions is currently undertaking to reach out to those on the peripheries of society with the Gospel.  To date, over 700 Cabecar women have come through their doors to receive food, shelter, health education and health-care advocacy in the state-run medical system, receiving love and care from the Mitchells and their five still-homeschooling sons, all of whom are engaged in the work of St. Bryce Missions.

The Mitchell’s “yes” to God has birthed healing in hopelessness and grace in grief—for themselves and numerous others. Their efforts have not only spurred a 50% drop in the infant mortality rate among the people they serve, but has given whole families in an oft-overlooked part of the world the opportunity to encounter Christ.

This article appeared previously at Aleteia.

Mercy Upon Mercy: My Father's Final Farewell

FullSizeRender-5 “At that last hour a soul has nothing with which to defend itself except My mercy.” —Diary of St. Faustina, par. 1075

“Do you believe in God, Dad?” I asked from the driver’s seat as Daddy and I cruised down St. Charles Avenue heading for my parents’ New Orleans home.

My then-eighty-year-old father, known to cry freely, began to weep. “I’m totally dependent on God’s mercy, Judy Marie,” he choked out using my entire given name, which he’d called me exclusively since the day I was born. “What else is there?”

That conversation contained the most open display of faith I’d ever seen in my dad; a father of ten whom I’d never witnessed initiating prayer or church attendance. Daddy and I had never even talked about faith before, and we only stumbled into this conversation because he was attending my Health Care Ethics course at a local Catholic college. Our weekly post-class lunch together, and the drive home, left ample time for conversation but it seemed that the topic of God was the hardest thing to broach.

Until Daddy lay dying.

“Dad,” I said out loud as I held the hand of my lightly comatose father in what would be the last week of his life, confident he could still hear me. “Remember what you told me about being completely dependent on God’s mercy? Trust in the mercy of God when you meet him, Dad,” I continued. “That’s all you need to do.”

Family members had been gathering daily by Daddy’s bedside to pray the Rosary and Divine Mercy Chaplet, engaged in a vigil of prayer and personal attendance as he slept in a newly delivered hospital bed. At least one person from our large family sat next to him constantly, while others occupied nearby spaces—keeping company with Mama and each other, preparing meals, and running necessary errands.

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“What a beautiful way to die,” I thought one evening as I stood in the kitchen tending a rump roast and sipping a glass of wine. I was overcome with awe by the sheer grace of it all, noting the powerful manner in which our father’s impending death had pulled us all to God and to each other; offering gratitude for the way a father’s final days had drawn a family that’s experienced more than its fair share of adversity, division and tragedy solidly together in faith, hope and love.

A priest friend had come by twice in eight days to offer Mass, anointing both of our ailing parents each time with the Sacrament of the Sick. At the second Mass at least thirty members of our extended family crammed around the dining room table to celebrate the liturgy—the same table at which at least a dozen people would gather for dinner another night to pool our hearts and prayers:  intermittently praying, eating, crying, laughing, and sharing stories of our lives together. An Apostolic Pardon was given to Daddy, as well as the offering of love, peace and pardon from many family members. One particularly precious night, a room full of grown children raised our voices beside our unconscious father to thank him for the many gifts he’d given us, including endless hours spent in the scorching Louisiana heat teaching twenty-eight first cousins how to ski, crab, boat and fish in the murky waters of Lake Pontchartrain.

Life had not always been easy and Daddy had borne his scars, especially from the heart-shattering deaths of two of his sons to suicide.  Indeed, life had seemed almost merciless at times and God far distant, and our now-fragile father had cried many tears over life’s bitter disappointments.

But now—at the hour of death when it mattered most—mercy upon mercy showed up.

A peaceful, holy death was granted to a man who had the grace to comprehend that he was “totally dependent on God’s mercy”—tender, faithful Mercy that drew us all into its embrace during a father’s final farewell.

This article previously appeared at Aleteia.

Pre-order my new book at MemorareMinistries.com.

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Hope For Troubled Parents: Become A Child Yourself

FullSizeRender-2 Twice recently I've heard parents say: “I did everything right, and my child is still doing (name your favorite sin).” “Good luck with that!” I responded to one of them in a voice that was louder and more vigorous than I intended. Because the lie that if you do it all right, then you’ll be guaranteed a good result is a form of an ancient heresy known as Pelagianism. The old heresy now has a new moniker: the Prosperity Gospel, which purports that if I do X and Y then I will earn Z from God. Oh, how it misses the point of God’s grace!

What a relief to heartily admit what two of the greatest saints of our era, namely St. Faustina and St. Therese of Lisieux, freely admitted: they couldn’t get it right. While simultaneously reading St. Faustina’s Diary and Fr. Michael Gaitley’s 33 Days to Merciful Love, I was almost giddy when I happened upon Faustina and Therese’s own words:

O my God, I understand well that you demand this spiritual childhood of me…I am an abyss of misery, and hence I understand that whatever good there is in my soul consists solely of His holy grace. The knowledge of my misery allows me, at the same time, to know the immensity of Your mercy. (St. Faustina, Diary, par. 56.)

And if the good God wants you weak and helpless like a child…do you believe you will have less merit?...Agree to stumble at every step, therefore, even to fall, to carry your cross weakly, to love your helplessness. (Gaitley, quoting Therese, 56)

Before I read those words, I’d been feeling particularly low about the mistakes, failures and foibles I’ve made as a parent. But surprisingly, every time I turned to the Lord for guidance he said the same thing to me: Become a child yourself.

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Why?

Children are spontaneously, intuitively in touch with their own neediness, and they are quick to ask for help. Children have open hands and open hearts, and they stand ready to receive love with gratitude and joy. Children live in expectant faith that if they fall, fail or flail their Papa is going to take care of it—and he’s going to take care of them, too. Children trust completely.

This is the way of spiritual childhood that Faustina and Therese found so liberating; it is the way of the child through which we, too, must pass in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. The way of spiritual childhood is the path of humility and trust: I freely and humbly admit that I’m a hot mess, while furiously trusting that I am loved and redeemed by a merciful God who is bigger than all of my sins and weaknesses.

Of course, I try my best to live and love according to the ways of Christ. And when I fail to do so I turn to God, trusting that he will fill in the gap of all I am lacking in love and holiness with his love and holiness, and that his offering is superabundantly sufficient. Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) said it this way:

What faith basically means is just that this shortfall that we have in our love is made up by the surplus of Jesus Christ’s love, acting on our behalf. He simply tells us that God himself has poured out among us a superabundance of love and has thus made good in advance all our deficiency. Ultimately, faith means nothing other than admitting that we have this kind of shortfall; it means opening our hand and accepting a gift. (Ratzinger, What It Means to Be A Christian, 74).

Are you fretting about all you lack as a parent? Then become a little child. Abandon yourself and your children completely to God, trusting that his love will make up for whatever is lacking in yours. This is grace. For as the Little Flower herself insisted, all is grace.

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This article was previously published at Aleteia.

Grace Upon Grace

Dear Friends, Many blessings to you and your families as we end 2015 and begin the new year.  Please know that I am praying for you and your intentions today at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C..  May the Lord bless you abundantly in 2016 and grant you a fresh outpouring of His mercy and love.       Blessings and grace!    Judy  

Statue in the Crypt of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception

We recall the poignant words of Saint John XXIII when, opening the (Second Vatican) Council, he indicated the path to follow: “Now the Bride of Christ wishes to use the medicine of mercy rather than taking up arms of severity.” Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, par. 4

Carried tenderly through the Jubilee Door of Mercy at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception by her parents, 10-day-old Grace Philomena would be baptized in just a few hours on this same special day—the Feast of the Holy Family in the Octave of Christmas during the Jubilee Year of Mercy.

Grace. God’s favor and unmerited gift. A perfect name for a baby conceived in an imperfect situation by unmarried young adults; yet a child welcomed, wanted, loved by God and by us. Moreover, a child soon to be infused with the grace of God, giving her the one identity that truly counts: child of God.

Standing in the crypt of the National Basilica, it was hard to miss the sense of being in the womb of the Church, the womb of the Bride of Christ, the womb of Mercy. I pondered the paradox of the God-man choosing to enter this world in an irregular and apparently scandalous situation, conceived before Joseph and Mary were living together as husband and wife, making Mary subject to stoning according to the demands of the law. Why that way, Lord? I have asked the question many times. I thought of Mary’s dilemma, about how difficult it must have been as she wondered how her situation would play out. I thought of all the months I worried about and prayed for Grace, asking God for his help that this situation, too, might play out well.

Then came Grace, on the birthday of Pope Francis—the pope who baptized the baby of unwed parents on the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus. And here we now stood on the Feast of the Holy Family holding Grace hours before her baptism, with grace holding us.

The last Gospel reading of the year proclaims: “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace; for the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:16-17, RSV). While the law was a teacher, grace is a healer. The law was a guide; but grace is a mother. The law foreshadowed Christ; grace gives us Christ. Grace welcomes Grace, making her a child of God “born not by natural generation or by human choice nor by a man’s decision but of God” (John 1:13).

“Were sin the only thing that mattered, we would be the most desperate of creatures,” Pope Francis said in his opening homily for the Jubilee Year of Mercy. “But the promised triumph of Christ’s love enfolds everything in the Father’s mercy.” That enfolding comes in many forms—all destined to beckon us to God.

I’ve watched an unborn baby call two confused young people to adulthood: to purpose, to promise, to love. I watch them now as they hold an infant daughter in their arms, presenting her to the Father of Mercies that she may be enfolded in his love. The law would have repudiated Mary. But grace embraces Grace, and her parents, with the medicine of mercy. The arms of severity have no place here, only the arms of love.

This post was previously published at Aleteia as The Mercy Journal.

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How The Gaze Of A Blind Man Healed My Sight

Happy birthday to our beautiful daughter, Kara, who has taught us all so much about love, and to our first grandson, James, who is such a gift of joy! Merry Christmas to you and your families!  May the Lord grant you a fresh outpouring of mercy and love!

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At times, we are called to gaze even more attentively on mercy.  Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, par. 3.

Our Christmas girl, who turns thirty today, wanted only one gift that year. “For my birthday and Christmas present, I’d like a plane ticket to bring Richard to visit our family for the holidays,” Kara requested with all of the innocent fervor of her kind eighteen-year-old heart.

Richard was a middle-aged, legally blind man none of us had ever met. Living alone in Florida he’d heard Kara, a singer/songwriter, perform on EWTN’s “Life On the Rock.” He promptly found her website, and they formed a friendship centered upon letter writing and praying for each other’s needs. From what Richard shared, he loved the Lord deeply, and having no family, spent his days praying and watching Catholic television.

“That sounds like a great thing to do for Christmas,” my late husband, Bernie, and I agreed, proud of our daughter’s magnanimity. Besides, having just buried Bernie’s thirty-six-year-old son unexpectedly in early September, we figured it would be a welcome distraction from our own intense pain.

The next think I knew, we were picking Richard up at the airport. And while it seemed like a great idea in concept, I never thought about the possible repercussions of bringing a total stranger into our home until the man was upstairs, planted in a bedroom next to the ones where our five children lay sleeping. Downstairs in the master bedroom, I was suddenly seized with fear. “Bernie, we have no idea who this person is!” I elbowed my half-asleep husband. “He could be Jack the Ripper for all we know!” Thus began a sleepless night of listening to every drop of noise in the house, anxiously awaiting a sign that Richard had left his room.

Daylight brought new perspective. As I sat down to coffee with the poor man, I realized he was probably much more frightened than I over the endeavor he just undertook—flying on a plane for the first time in his life to spend a week in an unfamiliar place with complete strangers. I soon learned that Richard had been blinded by the physical abuse of his parents, then sent to live in foster care while still a young child—only to land in the hands of another abusive mother. His life had been one of deprivation and suffering, and with no family whatsoever, he lived in poverty with two parakeets as his only companions. Though he'd worked for years as a gardener near his home, his physical infirmities eventually took over, sequestering him at home.

Days passed, and what began to strike me about Richard was less the depth of his sad story than the immensity of his gratitude. He raved about how this was the best Christmas he’d ever had, and about how much love, warmth, and welcome he felt in our home. As I entered into Richard’s story, our own deep suffering began to feel much more bearable. It was then that I started to realize that to show "compassion" to another—which in Latin means “to suffer with”—strengthens and consoles us.

“The crucified Christ has not removed suffering from the world. But through his Cross, he has changed men, opening their heart to their suffering sisters and brothers and thereby strengthening and purifying them all.” Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI), The God of Jesus Christ: Meditations on the Triune God, 53.

The grateful gaze of a blind man gave me sight that suffering Christmas, an unexpected gift of grace. What began as a token gesture of Christmas generosity ended in a purifying glance of mercy from heaven’s throne; fortifying us all.

Author’s Note: This piece first appeared at Aleteia as "The Mercy Journal."

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Becoming Like Children

Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the Kingdom of heaven.   Matthew 18:2

Photo Credit: @jamesgraysonhicks; My three grandsons, waiting for the train to see Pope Francis.

I have noted with some interest this week that several of the daily Mass readings—on the heels of Pope Francis’ visit to the United States—have been about becoming like children. A defining feature of children is that they trust their parents; trust that is also meant to be a delineating mark of Catholics in regard to the Pope. Yet, while many “faithful” Catholics spent the week picking apart Pope Francis’ messages—looking for a blunder, for something with which they disagreed—it seems that his messages managed to touch and transform the hearts of many who supposedly do “not follow us,” which God-incidentally, was the Gospel for Sunday’s Mass in Philadelphia (Mark 9:38-43).

I sat glued to the television watching the Pope make his way from the White House to Ground Zero, to the United Nations, and through the City of Brotherly Love. I was struck by the fact that the secular news media, typically known for their full frontal attack on the Catholic Church, gave non-stop coverage to a man who one mystified reporter laughingly stated was “not a rock star coming with pomp and pageantry,” but the Bishop of Rome, of all people. Furthermore, the personal reaction that secular news reporters had to the successor of St. Peter was nothing short of stunning.

“Here he comes! Here he comes!” a CNN reporter squealed gleefully as the Pope’s motorcade approached, unable to hide her excitement. “The crowd is electric as the shadow of Peter passes by!” she said breathlessly as the Pope’s motorcade passed the CNN platform. She then went on to share that she had left the Catholic Church in dismay over the sexual abuse scandals, but that the love she’s felt from Pope Francis has reignited her faith, bringing her back to the Church. “He passed right by our CNN platform out there and I can’t tell you what I felt. I didn’t expect it. It was the presence of holiness and goodness…Pope Francis is speaking a message that is hungrily received by a world that is desperate to hear good news.”

That message is the unconditional love and mercy of God for every single one of us; a communiqué that is a balm to the ears of so many who are beaten down and exhausted by the amount of hatred, rancor and division in this world.

My husband, Mark, and I watched the coverage in stunned silence, smiling broadly over the childlike exuberance repeatedly displayed by secular news reporters on both CNN and MSNBC. It was real. Their hearts were touched by Pope Francis’ love. So much so that New York Times reporter David Brooks said Sunday morning on NBC’s Meet the Press:

"the big effect of this week is not what (the Pope) says on global warming. It's that hundreds of thousands of people will have their hearts opened by his presence. And (for) some percentage, their life will be utterly altered by this week. Today in Philadelphia, there'll be tens of thousands of people whose souls are just exploding. And they will look back on this moment as the moment their life changed."

His words resonated with what broadcast journalist Maria Shriver wrote in her blog on Monday, the day after the Pope departed:

"Francis has had a dramatic impact on my life this past week. It’s almost hard to put into words…No, I didn’t get to interview him. I didn’t even get to meet him, but it didn’t actually matter because his words met my heart and ignited my spirit. I felt them deep in my soul. Every sermon, every speech moved me further, moved me deeper. Some I’ve read and reread 10 times."

She then proceeded to describe how, since Pope Francis arrived in the United States, she has taken “an internal inventory of everything in her life, reassessing power, success, joy, money…I’m going forward differently because of him.”

All of this has made me ask myself: have I been as open as those who don’t claim to adhere to everything the Church teaches, yet whose hearts were accessible enough to listen, to trust, and to learn from what Pope Francis had to say? Am I willing to turn, to change, to let the Pope’s visit make a difference in my life? Will I, like Pope Francis, approach others with love, mercy and kindness—which will surely win more souls for Christ than any good dose of scolding about the doctrines of the Catholic Church ever could?

I must admit that on day one of his visit, I wanted the Pope to read our President the riot act. Instead, he simply shared the beauty and joy of his faith in Jesus Christ, as he continued to do throughout his journey. By day five, I could see that Pope Francis was disarming the skeptics and unbelievers with humility and unconditional love, the hallmark of his childlike heart—signs that are meant to be a hallmark of every child’s heart.

Photo Credit: @jamesgraysonhicks; My little grandsons, trying to get a glimpse of the Pope.