St. Joseph, Pray For Us

Tomorrow, we celebrate the Solemnity of Saint Joseph, spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He is the patron saint of fathers (Joseph is also the patron saint of the Universal Church, families, fathers, expectant mothers (pregnant women), travelers, immigrants, house sellers and buyers, craftsmen, engineers, and working people in general), so he and I share a bond. I don’t have any kids like Jesus, but they try.

When I was in the Holy Land last year, we stayed at a convent built over the site of where Joseph might have lived with Mary and Jesus. It is just down the street from the Basilica of the Annunciation and next door to Joseph’s workshop, so who knows?

Nothing is recorded in Scriptures about St. Joseph’s words to his family. He gets a message in a dream, but even the Blessed Mother gets to speak once in a while. And yet, he is a model for fathers everywhere. There’s a lesson in there, albeit an ironic one, about who gets to talk and who gets to listen.

Joseph always makes me think about my father, quiet as a bookend and just as strong. As I try to land my dissertation, I am finding more and more research that speaks to the importance of fathers when it comes to raising faith-filled children. Nothing, it seems, can make up for a distant father. As I think about Joseph, I realize that in the Jewish tradition, the children learn their faith from the parent most like them. Dads teach boys and moms teach girls. It stands to reason, then, that Jesus’ own foundation in faith came from Joseph. He was the one who taught Our Lord to read, to pray the Shema, to understand the great commandments, how to worship in the synagogue, and how to rest on the Sabbath. Joseph was Jesus’ first teacher in the ways of faith. He was the best of teachers. Sure, Jesus was human and divine, but do any of us really believe that, as a small child, he was fully aware of everything, fully conscious of what was ahead? How do you square that with humanity? How do you put that in the head of an eight-year-old? No, Joseph taught Jesus, I am sure of it.

Like Joseph, I must teach my children – by word and example – what an intimate relationship with God looks like. I must teach them to pray, how to love, how to forgive, and how to rest. This week, I will be like Joseph and listen more. I will speak less. I will work hard. And, like Joseph certainly did for Jesus, I will teach my children well.

St. Joseph, patron of fathers everywhere, pray for us.

Have It All

One of the cool things about telling the Amazon Alexa in the kitchen to play music is that, every so often, she (yes, we think she’s a she) will play music that we have never heard before and we uncover a new artist or a new song. That was true last week.

The tubular device played Jason Mraz’s song, “Have It All” and we were hooked. We paused the song to ask Alexa what it was and then immediately grabbed the phone to download it. We store up credit on iTunes and share music as a family so everyone can enjoy it. It’s an earworm kind of song that gets stuck in your head, but, in this case, I am okay with that.

Apparently, the artist was visiting Myanmar some years ago, participating in a concert aimed at ending the exploitation and trafficking of young people. While traveling, Mraz noticed that Buddhist people commonly greet each other with the phrase “Tashi delek,” which translates to, “May you have auspiciousness and causes of success.”

And the song was born.

I have long thought that all music is directional – God to us, us to God, or us to each other. Most the music that I would label, “garbage” is from us to each other. Most of the music that praises God is us to God. This song, in my head, is clearly God to us. Here is how it opens:

May you have auspiciousness and causes of success
May you have the confidence to always do your best
May you take no effort in your being generous
Sharing what you can, nothing more nothing less
May you know the meaning of the word happiness
May you always lead from the beating in your chest
May you be treated like an esteemed guest
May you get to rest, may you catch your breath

And may the best of your todays be the worst of your tomorrows
And may the road less paved be the road that you follow

What a great invitation. What a challenge. We have a God who loves us unconditionally. A God who always wants the best for us. I do not believe that God wants us “to have it all” in the material sense. But I do believe God wants us to share in His love, His life, His Spirit. For me, that’s what the song says. That’s what went through my head as we danced around the kitchen, playing the song again and again.

Well here’s to the hearts that you’re gonna break
Here’s to the lives that you’re gonna change
Here’s to the infinite possible ways to love you
I want you to have it
Here’s to the good times we’re gonna have
You don’t need money, you got a free pass
Here’s to the fact that I’ll be sad without you
I want you to have it all

We are going to be hurt, but we have the power to change the world. Material things are not necessary. Just live Jesus and know that when we wander away from God, our presence is missed, though God never leaves us.

May you be as fascinating as a slap bracelet
May you keep the chaos and the clutter off your desk
May you have unquestionable health and less stress
Having no possessions though immeasurable wealth
May you get a gold star on your next test
May your educated guesses always be correct
And may you win prizes shining like diamonds
May you really own it each moment to the next

And may the best of your todays be the worst of your tomorrows
And may the road less paved be the road that you follow

So there is our challenge for the week. Love one another in a way that makes the love of God real in our lives. Be a window into the heart of Jesus. Greet others with “Tashi delek.” Wish others well by being the presence of God in their lives.

And don’t forget to sing.

Confirmed

Ace Number One was Confirmed on Saturday. She still smells like Chrism.

Several months ago, I asked her what name she was considering. “St. Thecla,” she responded, without hesitation.

“Who in the world is that?” I asked.

“She was a recluse and a virgin,” came the response.

“Oh, sweetie,” I responded in typical dad fashion, “You don’t have to be a recluse.”

“Nice dad.”

This kid misses nothing.

When I asked a few weeks later if this was still her name of choice, she told me it was and when I asked why – on a day filled with anxiety and stress from school – she told me: “Thecla was a first century strong female saint who isn’t Our Lady…and she was anonymous.”

While I was proud of her for spending more time on researching her name than most kids her age, my heart broke a little as I realized the quest for anonymity was real. She is a young lady struggling to find her place in the world, who is overwhelmed by (in her words), “the vastness of God, the sinlessness of Jesus, and the need to go to Church.”

I have never been one to let my children choose whether they go to Mass or not. We go as a family and that is the end of the conversation. But as Molly got closer to Confirmation, she had more questions about the hypocrisy of the Church, the poor leadership of parishes, the awful liturgical celebrations she has experienced, and faith in general. To be fair, she probably thinks about this more than most 13-year-olds, but this journey of self-discovery was part of her preparation, so it was part of our conversation at home.

When one of the children asks, “Do we have to go to Mass?” my response is always the same. “No.” I tell them, “We do not have to go to Mass.”

“We get to go to Mass.”

We live in a country where we get to worship as we please. We get to believe, practice, pray, and celebrate our faith freely.

“And you get to get in the car now,” is how that conversation usually ends.

It isn’t that the children don’t enjoy Mass, it’s more that, since Fr. John died, the relationship has changed – not ended. They struggle to find a relationship that is consistent and a message they can remember. He really was one of a kind.

So Molly chose to be Confirmed. Not because she has all the answers – I assured her that her own father still struggles – but because she knows now that struggling with our faith is best done at Mass.

During the homily, Bishop Caggiano directed his message directly to the Confirmandi:

“You are on the road to sainthood,” he told them. “And it happens one choice at a time.”

One choice at a time.

One Mass at a time.

One day at a time.

One child at a time.

May your week be filled with the presence of the Holy Spirit and the sweet smell of Chrism.

A Sturdy Shelter

On Friday this week, we will hear from the sixth chapter of Sirach. It is one of my favorite readings and, though we do not hear it often proclaimed at Mass, Maureen and I used it as the first reading at our wedding.

A kind mouth multiplies friends and appeases enemies,
and gracious lips prompt friendly greetings.

O Lord, this is hard. I know my mouth should be kind, but sometimes the words get from my brain to my mouth too quickly.

Let your acquaintances be many,
but one in a thousand your confidant.

Who do you trust? Who will be with you when the going gets rough? Thank God for Maureen.

When you gain a friend, first test him,
and be not too ready to trust him.

This is odd. I was taught that being the first to trust is better. Still, I suppose being cautious is relationships, especially new ones, is a good thing.

For one sort is a friend when it suits him,
but he will not be with you in time of distress.

Yes, I have met these people. They say they want to work with you, then they throw you under the bus when the work becomes too difficult.

Another is a friend who becomes an enemy,
and tells of the quarrel to your shame.

Pope Francis says that gossip is a form of terrorism.  Lord, save me from those who do not speak to my face when they are angry – and give me the courage to speak the truth.

Another is a friend, a boon companion,
who will not be with you when sorrow comes.
When things go well, he is your other self,
and lords it over your servants;
But if you are brought low, he turns against you
and avoids meeting you.

Yes, I know these people, too. They are right by your side until you are in need. Then, they are nowhere to be found. They have moved on to happier friends, those not currently in despair, those who require less of them. 

Keep away from your enemies;
be on your guard with your friends.

Makes sense to me.

A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter;
he who finds one finds a treasure.

I call her my wife.

A faithful friend is beyond price,
no sum can balance his worth.

Or her worth. Let’s be fair here.

A faithful friend is a life-saving remedy,
such as he who fears God finds;
For he who fears God behaves accordingly,
and his friend will be like himself.

A life-saving remedy indeed. They are your best editor and hear what you do not say. They save you from yourself and help you understand your needs before you are even able to identify them.

 May your week be filled with friends.

Uncle Bill

We are in Philadelphia this weekend, helping Aunt Barbara with the final cleaning of Uncle Bill’s house. Bill died on the anniversary of my own father’s death back in July. He had fallen a few days before and suffered a stroke, or perhaps the other way around. In the end, Bill was 95 and a half years old and my children were disappointed that his death came the day we shipped out to Europe, meaning that we would miss his funeral. Adding to the disappointment was knowing how many aunts and uncles on my side would gather in Philly for Bill’s funeral.

As it turned out, his burial was in Ireland a day before we touched down there, so we missed that too. Still, we lit candles for Bill across Europe and kept him close as we traveled. Bill and Barbara were together for more than fifty years. He proposed marriage once, she declined, and so they lived separate lives and yet were together always. Every memory I have of weddings, funerals, and trips to see Barbara always included Bill. Even when Aunt Barbara, dad’s only sister, would visit Tennessee with my grandmother, stories and greeting from Bill followed. When Barbara and I drove a half dozen times or so to be with dad during his sickness, I was privileged to hear the whole story – from how they met to her regret that he never asked for her hand more than once.

He was the youngest of ten children, born outside Belfast. Even the story of his birth was fascinating. His mother had delivered twins (children 7 and 8) so when the doctor came to deliver child number nine, he could not imagine there would be two babies. He delivered Hugh, Bill’s brother, and then departed, sure his work was finished. The hemorrhaging continued for two days until the doctor returned and, much to the surprise of everyone, delivered Bill – a twin born two days later. The bleeding had been too much, and Bill’s mother died in the process. Bill would often joke that he must have been an ugly baby, because, “my mother took one look at me at died.” Nothing was off limits when it came to Bill’s sense of humor. In today’s world, there would be lawsuits and endless news about the doctor, but this was a small village in Ireland in 1923.

He left Ireland in his 20s and joined the Army. Later in life, he owned a successful landscaping business and drove a truck for Sun Oil, Co. We know all this not just from stories from Aunt Barbara, but because we found all the receipts from the business and the jacket that still fit Bill from 1947 among all his belongings. With every piece of paper, picture, and receipt, there is a story. Bill’s house, an old Victorian home converted to apartments, was where he lived since 1979, renting rooms to those in need and hardly ever raising the rent or getting paid on time. It was as much a mission as it was a business. All the apartments are empty now and as we finish taking bags and boxes to St. Vincent de Paul, the finality of Bill’s absence is settling in.

There was never a time when my children didn’t get handed a few dollars from Bill. There was never a baptism, birthday or a holiday when Bill was either present of the children got a call or a card. His refrigerator has his few favorite memories, according to Barbara – notes from his family in Ireland and two photos – one of Bill and my Katie and another of my children and Aunt B and Bill at the Philadelphia Zoo. He loved my children and they loved him, perhaps more so since their own grandfathers had passed.

I expected complaints as we planned to spend a few days working, but I now understand that the children see this work as a way to honor Bill – and a way to serve the woman he loved. As we bag and box up the rest of Bill’s life today before we head north, we will whisper a prayer of thanksgiving for a kind and generous man whose life of generosity and humor will always be a part of us.

 

Photo – Uncle Bill and my father, at a party following Katie’s Baptism in 2009.

Becoming my Father

Today would be my father’s 85thbirthday. It feels like a lifetime has passed since we lost him in 2011. There is so much that has happened in my life, the lives of my family, and in the world, since he’s been gone.

I think death is like that sometimes – a great divide where suddenly you begin recalling things that happened “with dad” and other things that happen “after dad.” The older I get, the more I realize how much I am like him – his mannerisms, his jokes, even, Maureen says, the way I sometimes shuffle around.

But I struggle to be like him when it comes to his faith.

Dad prayed the Rosary every day. He only spoke when he knew he could improve upon silence or break the tension in a room with a comment that made everyone laugh. When he said he was going to pray for something, you knew he meant it. Then, weeks later, he would casually bring it up in a conversation to check up on you. He was a man of great patience, filled with the gift of wonder and awe for the people around him. All was gift. He recognized that. He lived in that understanding.

This week’s first readings are all about the creation story and my own creation story is rooted in dad. I often think about how he and mom sacrificed to send many of their eleven children to Catholic school, how going to Mass on Sunday was part of who were as a family, and how my own parent’s involvement in the church led to a lifetime of my own working for the institution.

On Saturday, my office sponsored an event and, since I am a team of one, Maureen and the children came to help out. One of the kids handled registration. Another manned the bookstore. Another helped set up breakfast and lunch. Though tired from her own work, Maureen was overwhelmed by the mess of my office and helped put things together, hoping it might lighten the stress that has crept in.

As the people were leaving, someone remarked about how they loved seeing the kids as part of the day. “You remind me of my dad,” this woman said. “Church is a family thing and your children will always remember that.”

It occurred to me as she walked away that I learned that from my father. He and mom were the epitome of involved when I was a child and I am glad my own children are having the same experience.

Happy birthday, Dad. Thank you for the valuable lessons you left behind.

Surprised

I attended a conference in Indianapolis last week. It was only for a few days and flying in and through Chicago gave me an appreciation for hats, coats, and gloves. The conference was about theological exploration and, though I didn’t really want to take the time away from home and work, I am glad I did.

I forgot that I could still be surprised by the stories of others.

Like the woman in my small group who shyly told of being on the FBI “list” back in the day when she and her friends sat in at a lunch counter and shut Dillard’s department store down “because they would not hire blacks.” Now she is an ordained minister in the AME church in Arkansas – the first woman to hold that distinction.

Or the man who worked as both a priest and psychologist with first responders after 9/11.

Or the young lady struggling to teach college students and raise her own two young children.

Or any of the other stories of faith I encountered – one surprise after another.

And I forgot that I could be overwhelmed by prayer.

For two mornings, our prayer was led by a group out of Richmond, VA called Urban Doxology. While many in the room danced, waved their arms, and shouted: “Amen,” I was more of the “chosen and frozen” kind of pray-er, rocking back and forth like I was putting a baby to sleep, but still moved to tears at the songs of praise and powerful witness.

After Friday morning prayer, when I was psychologically done with the conference and emotionally ready to go home, I found myself seeking out one of the worship leaders. She had given a powerful testimony about her struggle with anxiety and sang a song that saved her once and continues to save her today.

As we started to talk, I told her about my own child who, at age 13, struggles with anxiety. I found myself choking up and I simply said, “You give me hope,” to this young woman with such a gift for music and such a witness to the 100 or so gathered.

“Can we pray?” she asked. Sheepishly, I agreed.

She began, “Heavenly Father, we pray for Patrick’s baby girl….” And I lost it.

But as she prayed, I was overcome with a sense of relief. My oldest will always be my baby girl. She will always be my Ace Number One. And I knew at this moment she would be okay. In all my distractions, I remembered that there is a God who loves her more than I can ever comprehend, even if the child wonders if that’s always true.

“Amen,” the prayer concluded, and I thanked her.

I forgot that I could be overwhelmed by prayer.

~pjd

Distracted

Today is the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas. I have studied his work and read his questions and answers many times. I am challenged each day by the three paths to God of which he writes: truth, beauty, and goodness. 

But I find that I am distracted. 

Distracted with worry about the child whose fever is high and whose congestion convinces her she cannot breath

Distracted by the unedited chapters of my dissertation that await my approach when I find the time. 

Distracted by the news I fear may come in the next few days or weeks.

Distracted about the trip I take this week, missing work and family and having to navigate airports and luggage and parking.

Distracted about the unfinished lists in my head and on my desk.

Distracted by the people in front of me at Mass that show up late, chatter throughout, and then leave after Communion. 

Distracted that I cannot seem to focus in prayer. 

Distracted by bills that did not get paid this month.

Distracted.

So, in desperation, I turned to the good St. Thomas: “Faith has to do with things that are not seen and hope with things that are not at hand.”

And it makes me wonder: is it a lack of faith that distracts me? If I understand that “faith is God’s work within us,” could I be so bold as to give my distractions over to God? Will any worry today fix any of these things tomorrow? Will the hope of change be enough or must there be a commitment to change, to act, to do something. 

If there really is nothing to be accomplished by worrying, why worry? 

Easier said than done. 

Perhaps, for now, I can simply ask St. Thomas to guide me, intervene for me, console me.

“Grant me, O Lord my God, a mind to know you, a heart to seek you, wisdom to find you, conduct pleasing to you, faithful perseverance in waiting for you, and a hope of finally embracing you. Amen.”

St Thomas Aquinas, pray for us.

More Than A Day Off

School and work are closed today as we commemorate the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr. The free time offers us an opportunity to catch up on sleep, watch a movie, or complete projects at home that have been waiting. But we would miss the real purpose of the day off if we did not also take a moment to remember the message of Dr. King. 

As a white American, I have never been racially profiled. My ancestors were never sold into slavery. No one has ever used a racial epithet to describe me or my children. The lenses through which African Americans see the world are not lenses through which I can see. In many ways, our stories are different and today is a chance to remember that. 

Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is by far his most quoted work. Until last year, it was the work with which I was most familiar. When I started teaching as an adjunct at a local university, I assigned Dr. King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” to the students. It was in the book and appeared on the syllabus I inherited. 

You should read it. Everyone should read it. 

It was written after Dr. King was arrested for his leadership of boycotts in Birmingham and in response to white church leaders who were criticizing King’s methods and presence in their community. The other church leaders had published an editorial, calling him an outsider and listing several criticism of his work and his movement. 

You can hear Dr. King’s frustration and despair as he writes on napkins, newspapers, and anything he can get his hands on, trying to scrape together a response to a world that does not understand nonviolence or the plight of his brothers and sisters. 

Perhaps today we can take a few moments and read the letter in its entirety. The words he wrote then are still appropriate today. 

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

You have, no doubt, heard the first part of that quote before. But what about the rest of the paragraph? Do we behave as though the lives of others affect my life? Do we believe in King’s “single garment of destiny”? Am I really affected by what affects another? Or do I watch a 30-second clip of a video on the news or online, instantly form an opinion, and let that opinion shape my reality?

“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”

We are still repenting for the sins of our past – as a society and as a community of faith. Surely part of the healing must include a commitment to be silent no longer when we hear hateful words and actions of bad people. 

“Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

How in the world are we silent in the face of hunger, poverty, racism, sexism, and outright ignorance? Why are we quiet when someone from another political party or faith or race is treated with such disdain? When did our winning have to include the humiliating defeat of the opponent? Where are the real leaders today?

And finally:

“Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice ― or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?”

It is time for people who say they believe in Jesus and all He teaches – love of neighbor, forgiveness of others, charity, hope, and peace – to show the world that hatred has no home hear, authority is never abused, everyone is welcome, and salvation is open to all. 

Spend some time studying Dr. King today. Discover his message of peace. Welcome the stranger. Forgive someone. Most of all, live a life of peace and justice so that others might look at us and see straight through to God.

May your week be blessed.

God Breaks the Silence

When I was teaching in Knoxville, we had a diocesan in-service for teachers reflecting on the three times that God breaks the silence in the New Testament. One of those times is at the Baptism of the Lord, which we celebrated yesterday. Hearing this Gospel reading reminded me of that day so many years ago. 

During his presentation, the retreat master, Archabbot Lambert Reilly, OSB (who served as the leader of St. Meinrad Seminary from 1994-2004) said that God broke the silence in the New Testament three times. But he arrived late for his presentation and never got to the third occasion in Scripture where the voice of God is heard. Intrigued, I called the seminary, tracked down the Archabbot, and asked him to tell me about the third time. It was the start of a long friendship and I still have my notes from that conversation. For years, I have used yesterday’s readings as the jumping off point for a quiz I gave students – challenging them to find the three times in Scripture when God breaks the silence.

I will spare you the work.

The first, as I mentioned, is the baptism of our Lord (Matthew 3:13-17) in which not only the Trinity is revealed but also Jesus begins his public ministry to proclaim and make present the reign of God on earth. The Father’s voice in this passage speaks in terms that reflect Is 42:1, Ps 2:7 and Gn 22:2. This God-in-the-flesh is giving us first hand an example of submission to the saving activity of God. “To fulfill all righteousness” is to submit to the plan of God for the salvation of the human race. This involves Jesus’ identification with sinners; hence the propriety of his accepting John’s baptism.

The second time God breaks the silence comes at the Transfiguration (Mk 9:2-8, Lk 9:28-36, Mt 17:1-8) which confirms that Jesus is the Son of God (Mt 17:5) and points to fulfillment of the prediction that he will come “in his Father’s glory” (Mt. 16:27) at the end of the age. The voice that speaks repeats the baptismal proclamation about Jesus, with the addition of the command “listen to him.” The latter is a reference to Dt 18:15 in which the Israelites are commanded to “listen to” the prophets like Moses whom God will raise up for them. The command to “listen to” Jesus is general, but we know that just as Jesus shined white as light in this event, it is only by the light of his resurrection can we truly come to understand the meaning of his life and mission. His own instruction to the apostles to not reveal the details of this extraordinary event to anyone indicates that Jesus knows that until the resurrection, no testimony of this vision will lead people to faith.

The elusive third time that God breaks the silence is in John 12:20-36 as Jesus discusses his own death. He says that “whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be” (Jn 12:26). He continues and after admitting that he is troubled about the future and what he knows it holds for him, asks “what should I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name” (Jn 12:27). In other words, Jesus is saying that even though he is afraid, he also knows that it was for this purpose – to die for each of us – that he was born. In response to his request for his Father to glorify his name, a voice speaks: “I have glorified it and I will glorify it again” (28). The crowds who hear the voice say it was thunder, others say it was an angel. Jesus says the voice is heard so that we may believe that he himself is the light by which we all must live so as to become children of the light (36). We know that Jesus will have – after his suffering – all that he had before and that those who follow him will have what he has promised, namely, eternal life with the Father in heaven.

God becomes man so that we might follow Jesus’ example in our love for each other. Jesus dined with sinners and made the lame walk. He was crucified for our sakes and is made whole again through his resurrection. Those who follow will rise above all darkness that comes from doubt and sin and live only in the light. A light that is God. 

It is easy to forget the God still breaks the silence. We struggle to find both God’s voice and the silence. This week, take some time in the stillness of the morning or just before the lights go out to sit in the silence and listen for the voice of God.

May God be pleased with the work of our lives.