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.

Family Update

Child number two won second place in the science fair this week. Her project had something to do with whether girls were smarter than boys. The irony that a boy won first prize was not lost on her. Still, we are very proud.

Child number one did not place but did an excellent job on her project, “Can you survive a black hole?” The principal said that many of the judges found it fascinating and he wondered aloud if you could indeed survive a black hole. I told him I would let him know when teenage years were finished.

Child number three got a haircut that is too short for him. He complained that the stylist did not listen to his request. Good thing he’s a good-looking kid. He can pull it off. Dad…not so much.

Child number four was painting last week with child number three, when her sibling took the paint she was going to use. Rather than asking for the paint to be returned she whispered, “Sleep with one eye open, buddy, because I’m coming for you.” Too much Internet access for that child.

Maureen got home from a week away so our schedule of staying up late binge watching Monk on a school night will have to end. The kids said I was the best Dad ever every single night. The ice cream might have helped.

As we move towards Lent, we have been discussing what we could do as a family. Child number one suggested that we give up movie night but was horrified when I offered Stations of the Cross as an alternative. When another child suggested Taize prayer at our parish, all agreed, most of all the eldest. We also opted for more time in prayer each night and I have promised to get back on the exercise bike.

To cap out week, we went out to celebrate Dad’s birthday last night. It’s hard to believe he’s been gone six and a half years.

May your week be blessed and your Lent begin with humility and peace.

Children Will Watch

Ace Number One came home with an infraction the other day. It’s essentially a piece of paper that outlines what she did wrong and one of her parents have to sign it. By the time I got home, the infraction was signed and the letter of apology to the teacher to whom the disrespect was aimed was written and ready for delivery.

What did she do? Well, she repeated bad behavior. Walking her charges down the hall, the first-grade teacher told her students, “Be careful, children, the seventh graders have no respect for first graders.” Child number one took issue with this and, upon turning the corner, muttered to a friend, “It sounds like she doesn’t have a lot of respect for seventh graders.”

She would have gotten away with the remark had the first-grade teacher not been standing right behind her.

The infraction was well-deserved and the child was well rebuked. She knows better than to talk about another person like that. But, still, the whole event got me thinking. It reminded me of a conversation with my dad when I joked that no one listened to me at home. “Children don’t listen,” he said. “They watch.”

My children yell because I yell. They eat ice cream and chocolate and read books and love electronics because their mother and I enjoy all these things. They are short with each other and mean to each other and leave their clothes on the floor because, well, you get the idea.

But they also sing and share and pray because we do. They know I love the Rosary and have an affinity for Our Lady and they know that Maureen and I bless them each night not out of habit, but out of a commitment to love them and do our best to be their “first teachers in the ways of faith.” They know that the religious symbols in our home are not for show. They are silent homilies that give witness to all that our lives are rooted upon.

The teacher in the hall was inappropriate. So was the child in front of her. Children listen. Children watch.

Lord, give my children good witnesses. And let the witnessing begin with me.

~pjd

FXM

When I was little and the older siblings were playing basketball at Knoxville Catholic, the principal was a priest named Fr. Mankel. He would let us go into the office and make copies of our hands.

He was a big man with an enormous presence. When he spoke, rooms went silent. When he sang, walls shook. And when he corrected you, you just wanted to crawl away. But this big man became a mentor, a colleague, and eventually, a good friend. He was the first priest to hire me into ministry, promising that if I ever wanted to leave to “try out” the seminary, he would keep my position vacant in case I wanted to return home.

I heard this weekend that he is in 24-hour hospice care. He is in his eighties now and, though we have stayed in touch, he went downhill faster than anyone thought he would. He always joked that if he fell, the rising tide would sink many boats and, ironically, it was a fall at the barbershop that began his descent.

It was Fr. Mankel – now Msgr. Mankel – who invited my father to take stats at all the high school basketball games. For my father, it was a job he enjoyed from the early 1980s until shortly before he died. For Fr. Mankel, it was a way to separate my dad from Dr. Davidson since the two of them were, shall we say, pretty tough on the officials. That was FXM, always looking to match the right person with the right post.

His homilies were terrible, but his capacity to create a beautiful liturgical experience (homily notwithstanding) was incomparable. I served Mass with him every Triduum up until he transferred from our parish when I was 27. He was a gifted educator, a consummate politician, and a walking encyclopedia when it came to the people of Knoxville. He could look at a picture and tell you about the nurse who delivered the mother or the father of whomever was in the photograph. His mind was a wasteland of facts and figures most of us would never bother to remember, but for him, it was a way of connecting to the larger community and making sure those who heard him tell stories knew that, in the end, we are all connected.

This week, I will pray for my friend and teacher. I will tell my children the story of someone who once drove – or tried to drive – through the blizzard of 1993 just to get some personal items for the young people stuck at the church, snowed in during a retreat. I will tell them about how he once caught me imitating him and how he shook his head in disappointment, not because it was rude, but because my impression was so bad.

When you think about the teacher or mentor or friend that contributed to who you are today, whom do you think about? Got it? Can you see him or her? Good. Now tell that story to someone.

Be a witness to the lives of others and the gift they gave so freely.

Take It To Our Lady

My father was the one who introduced me to Mary. Every day on the way to school, we would pray the Rosary. It is a tradition I came to cherish and have sought to maintain as a parent. Even though the children now take a bus to school, the daily prayers are a practice I try to maintain – in part as a nod to my father and in part because of the power prayer has to focus me on the things that matter most.

But praying can be a challenge. It can be hard to hear above the din. The drive to the office is only a few minutes and I get busy at home or work. The noise around me – or in my own head – distract.

A few years ago, after Maureen was diagnosed with Colon Cancer, we were at a meeting for diocesan leaders that was taking place as part of the National Catholic Youth Conference, which Maureen organizes. In a moment of unscripted sharing, she told those in attendance about her diagnosis and impending surgery.

All of the sudden a women in the middle of the room interrupted her. “Take it to Our Lady,” she called out, and immediately invited all of us to pray the Hail Mary together for Maureen – and each other.

It was a powerful moment. It was a powerful experience. Even today, though the cancer is gone and Maureen’s at full power, it gives me chills. I can still hear that clarion call, “Take it to Our Lady” echoing as though they are instructions for the rest of my life.

For Mother’s Day, the children gave Maureen a statue of Our Lady for the garden in the back. Our friend, Fr. Joe, will bless it in a few weeks and Katie, who makes her First Communion next Sunday and missed the May Crowning as school, will fashion together some flowers and crown Mary – a small nod to another grandparent lost.

This week, I will focus more on prayer. I will go back to the ritual my father taught me and try to stand still before moving forward.

This week, I will take it all – the pain, the ignorance, the cynicism, the joy, the work, the play, the family, the driving, the shopping, and the conversations – all of it – to Our Lady.

And, like my father, I know I will find peace.

Mary On My Mind

On this feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, I have Mary on my mind.

I am reminded of my father and the many, many days we prayed the Rosary on the way to school. I remember coming home from school to find his car in the driveway – an oddity for so early in the day – and being told of a death in the family and then sitting in the living room reciting my father’s favorite prayer. I remember praying the Rosary every afternoon at the Grotto at Notre Dame. I remember talking with dad about new Mysteries of the Rosary he wanted to make up because he had run out of prayers. I remember dividing up the decades of the Rosary at dad’s wake among all the siblings and my older brother forgetting the words.

I remember Mary.

So on this day, I offer one of my favorite poems by Ruth Mary Fox, which is based on the alternative Gospel reading for today. May we be more like Mary, carrying Christ on life’s busy, crowded highways.

Into the hillside country Mary went

Carrying Christ.

And all along the road the Christ she carried

Generously bestowed His grace on those she met.

 

But she had not meant to tell she carried Christ

She was content to hide His love for her.

But about her glowed such joy that into stony hearts

Love flowed

And even to the unborn John, Christ’s love was sent.

 

Christ, in the sacrament of love each day, dwells in my soul

A little space.

So as I walk life’s crowded highways

Jostling men who seldom think of God

To these, I pray, that I may carry Christ

For it may be

Some may not know of him

Except through me.

Five Years On

As I look back on the five years since we lost Dad, I am moved this morning by the reading from the second letter of Paul to the Corinthians.

Brothers and sisters:
We hold this treasure in earthen vessels,
that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us.

Dad taught us that we are not in control. Ours should be a life of quiet service to others, not one of power or prestige.

We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained;
perplexed, but not driven to despair;
persecuted, but not abandoned;
struck down, but not destroyed;

In the last few months of his life, Dad came to know what persecution really meant. Still, he was a man of prayer and confidence, never despairing, never losing hope. Though he knew the ending of the story, he filled its pages well, living intentionally, knowing that each day mattered.

…always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus,
so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body.

He knew he became what he received, so he received the Body and Blood of Christ often. He let Jesus live in him and through him and with him.

For we who live are constantly being given up to death
for the sake of Jesus,
so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh.

The ups and downs of life are a shared effort between us and Christ, so long as we remember that we are rooted in Him. If we connect our sufferings to Christ, so too will we share in Jesus’ resurrection.

So death is at work in us, but life in you.

The relationship is changed, not ended.

Since, then, we have the same spirit of faith,
according to what is written, I believed, therefore I spoke,
we too believe and therefore speak,
knowing that the one who raised the Lord Jesus
will raise us also with Jesus
and place us with you in his presence.

Dad professed his faith proudly, knowing that care for his wife and family – bringing others to Christ through himself – was his ticket home to God.

Everything indeed is for you,
so that the grace bestowed in abundance on more and more people
may cause the thanksgiving to overflow for the glory of God.

Thank you, Dad, for who you were and what you continue to be in our lives. We miss you every day and give thanks again and again for all you taught us about life, love, and peace.