To My Brothers With Love

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A Jubilee also entails the granting of indulgences. This practice will acquire an even more important meaning in the Holy Year of Mercy.  Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, par. 22.

No way. I wasn’t going to jump through hoops to try to gain God’s favor—because that’s how I saw indulgences at the time. As a “revert” to Catholicism from evangelical Christianity, the doctrine of indulgences still scandalized me.

An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1471).

Gains? Under certain conditions? Nope. Not for me. While I had accepted the doctrine of purgatory and the idea that temporal consequences may need remediation after sin is forgiven, the thought that I could do something to help a deceased soul repair the damage caused by sin still seemed, frankly, like hocus pocus to me.

Until I lost two brothers to suicide—both baptized Catholics—compelling me to ask:  What if indulgences aren’t about jumping through hoops to win God’s favor, but are instead about doing something concrete as an act of love for another person?

What if I could indulge my brothers in the unfathomable, unmerited mercy of God, asking that the lingering consequences of sin—more apparent than ever in the face of suicide—be remedied?

And what if I could assist my brothers in the necessary work of purification; in healing the wounds inflicted by sin?

Why wouldn’t I want to help them if I could?

Thus began my habitual practice of asking the Lord for an indulgence for them, or someone else in my bloodline, every time I go to Confession.* Because fundamentally, indulgences admit that we’re not in this alone, but that we’re members of one Body who help and support each other on this journey to salvation. Indulgences acknowledge that we are, indeed, our brothers’ keeper, and that the voices of our brothers and sisters cry out for lavish mercy. Indulgences draw on the power of “the infinite value, which can never be exhausted, which Christ’s merits have before God” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1476)—the power that alone can redeem sin and its consequences. We are invited to participate in that power each time we pray, each time we turn to God for mercy and forgiveness, and each time we ask for an indulgence, which applies to ourselves and others of the fruits of Christ’s redemption.

While I can’t presume to know with certainty that my brothers are saved, I believe and trust that "by ways known to (God) alone," they are (Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 2283).  I do not despair of their salvation, but entrust them to the eternal embrace of God that encompasses all time, all people, all things. I beg God’s mercy for them, availing myself of the graced opportunity to pray for a plenary indulgence for their souls.   That is just what I did on Scott’s birthday, December 30, when I walked through the Jubilee Door of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., holding him close to my heart.

God’s forgiveness knows no bounds, Pope Francis wrote in Misericordiae Vultus. Nor does his indulgent love, which can reach into all things, making up—and inviting us to participate—wherever love is lacking.

*For a fuller explanation about indulgences, see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1471-1479.

This article appeared first on Aleteia.

The Death of Zeus and the Healing of Fatherhood

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How much I desire that the year to come will be steeped in mercy, so that we can go out to every man and woman, bringing the goodness and tenderness of God!   Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, par. 5.

 

Drop by drop; the water fell through the sugar cube into the glass of absinthe perched on the Royal Street bar. Elvis’ “Blue Christmas” blaring from the stage had summoned us in for a dance, just after we’d finished caroling with thousands of others in the shadow of St. Louis Cathedral. My husband, Mark, decided to try the famous New Orleans libation, and as we watched the sugared water slowly sweeten the bitterest of drinks, Leonard approached the bar.

“What are you guys doing in New Orleans?” he opened.

“We’re locals,” we offered. “We were caroling in Jackson Square. The archbishop led the singing.”

“I used to be a good Catholic,” he countered immediately. “But I haven’t been to Church or prayed in years.” (People confess the darndest things in bars!)

One thing led to another and before we knew it, my husband and I were sharing openly about our faith in God, and about the reality of a tender, merciful Father who loves us personally and wants to be in relationship with us. We disclosed that we begin every morning with Eucharistic adoration and Mass, encouraging Leonard to start to set aside time to seek God in prayer.   It was then that he turned to me and asked: “What do you hear in prayer?”

“I hear God say, ‘You are my beloved daughter,'” I replied, grateful that the voice of Love has finally supplanted the voice of condemnation in my head. Leonard’s eyes widened like saucers and welled with visible tears. “Well, I’ve never heard anything remotely like that in prayer!” he exclaimed.

Leonard stayed close by us for the rest of the night, anxious to hear more about the Father who loves him. It was clear from our conversation that his relationship with his own father had been difficult, and that he, like so many other people Mark and I encounter, was suffering from what we’ve come to call “a father wound.”

More than forty years ago, Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) said in a sermon on God:

It is well known that the Greeks called their Zeus ‘Father’. But this word was not an expression of their trust in him!...When they said ‘Father’, they meant that Zeus was like human fathers—sometimes really nice, when he was in a good mood, but ultimately an egoist, a tyrant, unpredictable, unfathomable, and dangerous. (Joseph Ratzinger, The God of Jesus Christ: Meditations on the Triune God, 32)

How many people have experienced their human fathers this way? And how many people believe this is who God is?

Being in ministries where we hear the personal stories of wounded souls on a daily basis, Mark and I know this number is not negligible. Sadly, there seems to be a consistent theme in too many narratives: physically or emotionally absent fathers, raging fathers, alcoholic fathers, abusive fathers—fathers more like Zeus that the Father whom Jesus Christ came to reveal.

Ratzinger said in the same sermon on God:

The crisis of fatherhood we are experiencing today is a basic aspect of the crisis that threatens mankind as a whole. Where…the father is seen as a tyrant whose yoke must be thrown off, something in the basic structure of human existence has been damaged. (Joseph Ratzinger, The God of Jesus Christ: Meditations on the Triune God, 29)

Perhaps the “tenderness revolution” Pope Francis is launching will not only unleash mercy on the world, but will prompt a healing in fatherhood itself, one that “will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of children to their fathers” (Malachi 3:24, Luke 1:17). Such a turn might convince us that God is not Zeus, but “Abba,” who is mercy, kindness, compassion and love. This is the truth that is revealed in Jesus Christ, and meant to be revealed by Christ in us, as a desperate world cries: “Show us the face of the Father!”

Note: This article was first published on Aleteia as "The Mercy Journal."

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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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The Mercy Journal: Mercy Has A Name

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We need constantly to contemplate the face of mercy.  

Pope Francis, Miseracordiae Vultus

In the searing opening scene of the musical drama, Les Miserables, there is an unforgettable dialogue between the law-obsessed police inspector, Javert, and the soon-to-be-freed convict, Jean Valjean. Watching the film over the weekend in an intentional effort to “contemplate the mystery of mercy,” I was struck by Javert’s insistence, which continues throughout the film, in calling Valjean by his prison number: 24601. Even in the face of the paroled prisoner’s passionate response, “My name is Jean Valjean!,” Javert persists in identifying him only as “24601.”

Having just read a reflection by Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) on God’s name, a profound insight of Ratzinger echoed in my mind:

The adversary of God, the “beast”…has no name, but a number…six hundred and sixty six. It is a number, and it makes men numbers. We who lived through the world of concentration camps know what that means. The terror of that world is rooted in the fact that it obliterates men’s faces. It obliterates their history. It makes man a number…But God has a name, and God calls us by our name.” (Joseph Ratzinger, The God of Jesus Christ: Meditations on the Triune God, 23-24.)

We hear much quantifiable data expressing the reality of suffering souls around the world: eleven million people displaced in the Middle East, four million Syrian refugees on the run, 300,000 exiles attempting to cross the Mediterranean this year. But it was not until we saw a little Syrian child’s face half-buried in the sand and heard his name—Aylan—that the human story of so many millions of desperate people became real.

The year 2015 will be remembered as the year that the “worst refugee crisis since World War II” became headline news. It will also be remembered as the year the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy was inaugurated, the year when our Holy Father challenged us to delve deeply into the mystery of mercy, to receive mercy, to become mercy. Mercy, says Pope Francis, is “the fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters on the path of life.” (Misericordiae Vultus, par. 2.)

Why? Because when we look into the eyes of another human being, when we see their face, when we learn their name, their personal story begins; a story that invites us to relationship, to empathy, to compassion. When we look into the eyes of those who are gravely suffering, we are called to go out of ourselves to meet them in their need, and to do what we can to aid them. This, in fact, sums up the definition that St. Thomas Aquinas gives the virtue of mercy, which he defines as "the compassion in our hearts for another person's misery, a compassion which drives us to do what we can to help him." (Summa Theologiae (ST II-II.30.1))

While the debate rages on about whether or not to let Middle Eastern refugees into America, this much we can be sure of as followers of Christ: we are called to pray for the displaced, to help them, to offer aide, to act. When we do, we become the nickname of Mercy himself, "Jesus," whose name means, “I am the one who saves you.”

*There are many organizations through which we can offer assistance to those in need, including  Catholic Relief Services.

This piece appeared first at Aleteia as "The Mercy Journal."

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