Monthly Archives: April 2009

Lessons learned from St. Gianna (Molla)

gianna_sainthoodApril 28th Feast Day of St. Gianna Molla
Our Gianna’s first hospitalization, even though it was her healthiest, was by far the hardest for me.  During later ones we would have the slim hope of transplant to focus on, but during this one, as they tested the heck out of our little girl, we were coming to grips with the truth. Inside what looked like a normal baby was a liver full of cells that couldn’t make enough energy to keep her alive.  Our baby was going to die. Again.

St. Gianna Molla kept me company during those few days, as I had just received a biography of her for Mother’s Day, a week or two before.  There were two things that stood out to me in this particular account of her life. 

The first was of the very real pain her martyrdom caused her family.  It is easy to gloss over this in saints from eras long past, or for priests or religious even.  But here was Pietro Molla, Gianna’s beloved husband, sharing about how hard it was for him to raise their four children alone.  How hard he tried to protect his kids from the limelight surrounding Gianna’s growing popularity and her cause for canonization.  How awkward it was for him to allow his personal love letters to be published all over the world.  It was hard for him to share his Gianna with the Church, when he would much rather her have just been his unspectacular, non-miracle-working, grocery-shopping, diaper- changing wife!  Yet, he knew she was not his to keep to himself, and so he allowed the process to continue.  In 2004, He and their three surviving children (their daughter Mariolina died a few years after Gianna did) were at her canonization ceremony. Wow.

Our Gianna is also a saint, and I can share some of Pietro’s sentiments: saint-making is tough!  Especially at that moment in time, I did not want to share my Gianna with the Church.  I did not want her to intercede for people or inspire them.  I just wanted her to keep making diapers, and spitting up and wearing cute baby clothes, just like any other normal baby who lives to see their first birthday.   I love St. Gianna Molla, and I am grateful for what she did and who she now is.  But dang, she reminds me how real saints are, and that even when God is doing great and wonderful things, it still sometimes hurts!!

The second thing that struck me from that read of Gianna’s life was her unfailing trust in Providence.  Can you imagine having to decide between giving your baby life and giving her a mother? St. Gianna didn’t want to die. She loved life, and especially her family.  But she trusted God: that He was good as He claimed to be, and that He would take care of her family in her absence.  Pietro talks in that book about the times that were darkest for him and the kids and how he could feel Gianna’s tangible presence.  God did come through… through Gianna. 

And this is where we are left today.  Especially as we navigate the waters of a job search, and ponder the future of our family, we need to hold fast to what St. Gianna taught us: to trust in God’s Providence.  How grateful I am today for both of my St. Gianna’s!

St. Gianna Molla, pray for us!
St. Gianna Marie, pray for us!

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Sometimes He Says Yes

The day after Easter my son asked me if he could have lunch.  At 10am.  It wasn’t because he was particularly hungry, just that he knew he couldn’t have any candy until he had eaten lunch.  In Isaac’s case, this behavior is amusing.  With grown-ups much less so.  I would much rather someone come out with their actual question or request rather than dancing around it, hoping I will offer or somehow psychically mind-read the real issue. 

And yet, like many things that drive us crazy about others, it is something I am tempted to myself, and especially with God. It is hard for me to go to Him and ask for something tangible and specific.  Instead, like a preschooler thinking he’ll out-think Him into early candy consumption, I often play spiritual games with Him.  Sometimes I think I hide behind wanting Him to do His will, so that if He chooses not to grant my request I will not be disappointed.  Now, of course it is a good thing to want God’s will in all things.  The saints were people who got to the point where they were as thrilled with rain as sunshine, sickness as health, hunger as plenty, because they knew all things came from the hand of God, and they wanted what He wanted for them.  So, in one sense, it’s good to not put in specific requests.  If we’re doing it for the right reasons.

If we avoid doing so, is it because we are in true uniformity with His will, or because we don’t believe He has time for us, or that we are important enough, or that He is good enough to grant such a request?  These are not good reasons!  God is our Father, and He wants us to ask Him for the stuff we need and want.  Just as I recognize that Isaac biting his finger for the umpteenth time is not the biggest trial he’ll face in life, I empathize that that hurts, so does God see our trials in perspective, but with empathy.  The little things of our lives matter to Him.  And sometimes He needs us to just come out and ask before He will provide something, in order to build up our faith.

This week I had been watching the weather like a hawk.  We had four groups of teens planning to go out to do yard work for parishioners, and it was supposed to be cold and raining.  It occured to me after flippantly asking others to “pray for sun”, that perhaps I should take my own advice.  Very specifically, I asked, “Lord, please let it be sunny enough that we can go do chores tomorrow”.  Saturday morning, I sat down for prayer and read from Matthew about the star of Bethlehem and it occurred to me: God orchestrated a huge, burning ball of gas millions of lightyears from earth to show the location of a tiny baby in a stable.  He can hold off some rain for a few hours.  As I finished praying, the clouds cleared and the whole day was dry enough to work. 

Could God have been glorified through a weather cancellation? Absolutely.  But I think He chose to answer my little prayer to build up my faith.  To show me that I can trust Him with the small things as well as the big.  I have started getting specific with Him in bigger things.  It is good to remember that even though sometimes He says no for our own good, sometimes He does say “yes”!

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“What things?”

If the miracles, the fulfillment of all the OT prophesies and His explicit claims were not enough to confirm Jesus’ divinity, perhaps his talent for the well placed question would do it.  As he walks along with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, (Luke 24) he asks what they were talking about.  They look at him incredulously, and in great sorrow.  Has this guy been under a rock or what? Cleopas answers him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”  Here comes the great question from Jesus: “What things?”  The answer is an invitation from the Lord for them to empty their hearts to him, and they do.  They are sad because they thought Jesus would be the one to save them from the Romans.  But instead he was crucified, and to add insult to injury, someone stole the body! I’m not trying to trivialize the disciples’ disbelief.  We know the rest of the story, but they didn’t.  They didn’t yet have the Holy Spirit, and all they knew was they watched the One who raised the dead and feed the 5,000 be put to a brutal death. Could we blame them for being a little bummed out?

Call me Cleopas.  How many times has it been me walking along the road with my head hung low, complaining about all the ways that God did not fulfill the plans I had in mind for him?  As I’ve shared in previous posts, I had the whole thing worked out as to exactly how he was going to glorify himself, amaze the world and get my family back on track through Gianna’s long and healthy life.  And just like the plan the Father had for his Son, it turned out ugly.  But of course Jesus didn’t leave his disciples in their disappointment, and he hasn’t left me.  He takes the time to open their eyes to the prophesies about himself (don’t you wish Luke had let us in on that conversation??) and then reveals himself to them in the breaking of the bread.

Okay, here’s my point: in our sorrow we can sometimes miss the Lord.  I think of Mary Magdalene as another example.  She wept for the Lord, while he stood at her feet.  What a picture that brings to mind!  How did he snap them out of grief enough to deliver the unbelievably joyous news that their tears were for naught? Through the Scriptures, through the Eucharist, through the listening of prayer.  How many times do we not break long enough from our tears to look out for him?  How many of us are sitting right next to the Savior, imprisoned by our own fear and grief?

And yet, when we do recognize him things are not as they were.  It’s not like Jesus catches up to Cleopas and says, “Hey, wait! Remember that crucifixion thing? Smoke and mirrors.  Boy, are you guys gullible.”  No, the crucifixion was very, very real, and nothing can turn it into the plan the disciples were expecting.  But in his resurrection, Jesus reveals that the suffering he underwent was much better than their plan for him to conquer Rome.  From where we sit in history, don’t we have to agree? Wouldn’t it be kind of small potatoes for God to enter time in order to liberate a small religious group from yet another oppressive government?  Not that God doesn’t care about the smallest trials in our lives, but come on: instead he solved the problem of evil and conquered death forever, for all generations past, present and future.

From an eternal perspective, we can let our grief make us “think small”.  It would have been a huge joy for our family to have had a healthy baby, or even a medical miracle.  These things are big in our life, and would have been easy for God to do.  But if those things had happened, Gianna still would have died again at some time.  Though I probably won’t know on this side of the veil exactly what plans God is actually fulfilling in and through my kids, I can rest assured they are bigger than my dreams for them.  And really, the biggest miracle has been won for them: they enjoy the Beatific Vision.

So, though we don’t “give stuff up” for Easter, let’s stay faithful to our Lenten disciplines of prayer and Eucharist that we can have our eyes opened to the big plans of God for us.

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An Easter People?

We are an Easter People!

Have you ever heard that phrase or seen it on a banner? I have always been a little uncomfortable with it. Just like I am a little uncomfortable with the “resurrectifix” you sometimes see at churches. I’m sure in most of those instances, people are just trying to emphasize the amazing miracle of the Resurrection of the Lord. To that I say, Amen! But what concerns me in such expressions is the possibility that people are jumping ahead to the ending of the story, like Isaac skipping a scary part in “The Incredibles”.

The Cross and the Resurrection are like two sides of the same coin (analogy courtesy of Brad). You simply can’t have one without the other. The Resurrection without the Cross (and Jesus on it) loses it’s meaning. Do you think Mary Magdalene would have clinged so tightly to Jesus if he’d just been away on business? She stood by while he was beaten within an inch of his life, made to carry the cross of a criminal, crowned with thorns, had his flesh pounded through with nails, all the while crowds jeered at him and spat upon him.

We need to consider the Crucifixion in its fullness. It is true that the suffering of Jesus is repugnant. Anyone who has seen the Passion of the Christ can attest to that. But think of a time when you sat with a loved one as they wasted away from some terrible disease, or cleaned up their vomit or even just changed a particularly nasty diaper. Do you do so in disgust, or do you see past it to the one you love who was suffering? This is how we should be with Jesus in his Passion. And we all know that his Passion continues in the suffering of our own lives and those we love today: in their sickness, loneliness, financial troubles or despair. Only those who have known the Cross can truly experience joy when the tomb is found empty.

Similarly, we cannot have the Cross without considering the Resurrection. I think Mary, Jesus’ mother, knew he would rise. Being the wife of the Holy Spirit, she understood a lot more of those Old Testament prophesies than the disciples. And she suffered still, but with hope. Maybe that is the one thing that kept her from falling down dead with grief: this is not the end. Death will not have the final word.

And so it is with us. Without the Resurrection, Paul says, our faith has been in vain. It’s all a big joke. We’re the most pitiable of all people. We drag ourselves through this life of misery and when it’s over, we’re worm food- just like that preacher from Nazareth that gained a little traction all those years ago. But of course, it’s not. From the Resurrection, we are oriented toward our final end. We know that it is worth it, that if we die with him, we will rise with him in glory. Why is Lent 40 days and Easter 50? I’m sure it has something to do with the Jewish feasts of Passover and Pentecost, but perhaps it is also a reminder that eternity will continue f o r e v e r… way longer than this time in the valley of tears.

So let’s not skip any part of the salvation Christ won for us. Not just during Lent and Easter are we called to remember these realities, but we can build them into the rhytmn of life by fasting on Fridays and going to church on Sundays. And perhaps we should proclaim that we are People of the Pascal Mystery. Or I guess we could just call ourselves the Church. 🙂

Happy Easter, all. May you and your families be richly blessed in this holy season.

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That Good Friday Feeling

Ask any ten kids if they prefer Easter or Christmas, and I can bet Christmas wins every time.  That’s how it was for me growing up.  I could understand Christmas: birth of a special baby and cheer, sugar and presents.  Easter is much harder because it’s harder for kids to relate to Jesus’ torture, death and resurrection.  Perhaps the hardest part was Good Friday, and trying to “feel sad” all day when it really seemed like a normal day.  I never quite knew what to do with myself.  Could you play? Laugh? Have fun? Then on Saturday, could you be happy again? We were kind of getting ready, dyeing eggs and such, so the mood was somewhat lifted, but there was a thought I should save “really happy” for Easter Sunday.  And when Easter came, and there was whining over the choice of dress, and grumbling when we had to stand during Mass because we forgot how many extra people show up, and sugar highs and crashes, the “happy” wasn’t always a given, either.

One of my high school students made a passing comment a few weeks ago about having to feel sad on Good Friday which brought me back to my childhood experiences of Holy Week.  Looking at it now, I realize one of the problems is clear: Holy Week is not about feelings.  We remember and in a very real sense re-live the betrayal, death and triumph of our dear Savior.  We shouldn’t need to muster up positive and negative emotions any more than I needed a pre-programmed mood at my kids’ funerals.  The grief experts are careful to have you not “bottle up” emotion, but force it? Ridiculous.  If Jesus is as precious to us as we proclaim that He is, the emotions will be there.  If we don’t know Him, the emotion may be the kind of abstract regret we feel when we read about a school shooting in the paper.  Or, to be honest, probably a mix of both.  (Only Mary can really claim to love Jesus with all her heart.)

And of course, Jesus isn’t just another righteous leader cut down by the evil bureaucracy of His day.  He is the Savior of the World.  His Passion is not just some heroic act.  It has the power to save us from hell.  He does not die for some ideal.  He dies in my place.  These are things that should cause us to tremble… tremble… tremble.  Again, do they? Instead of “sad”, should we try to manufacture some “guilt” or “gratitude”?  Those feelings are appropriate, but if they are forced, they are as effective as a playground apology.  Instead, the antidote is to let God love us more.  To sit at His feet, experience His mercy (especially in the confessional), and just simply put ourselves in His presence.  As one of my professors is fond of saying, God can’t just sit there. He is Love, and love is a verb.  And Jesus’ death released the Holy Spirit, the One whose job it is to help that Love move our hearts to gratitude and conversion– from within.  So as the Triduum approaches, let’s make some extra time to be with the One who loved us so much that He would rather die than spend eternity without us.  And the feelings can fall where they may.

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On Palm Sunday and Hypocrisy

palm_crosses

What do you do with your palms? You know, the souvenir you get from making it through the longest Gospel reading of the year? They used to do a palm-braiding workshop at our church, and people ended up with the most beautiful creations. When I was little, I took advantage of the extra time in the pew to mold a less-than-spectacular cross. Now we generally take them home and put them beneath the corner of our various religious wall hangings.

The palm branches are, of course, a symbol of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. His disciples, according to Luke, “began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works they had seen” (19:37). The striking irony at every Palm Sunday Mass is that the centerpiece of it is the narrative of the Passion of Our Lord, the fact that the crowd who shouted “hosanna” on a Sunday shouted “crucify him!” on Friday. Those palms, no matter how brilliantly braided, remind us that we are hypocrites.

Hypocrisy is a glaring issue for Christians: we aspire to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect, but fall short every time. This problem causes many to scoff at us, and others to just give up with faith completely, assuming it is better to not try to live up to the Christian ideal than to “be a hypocrite”. But let’s go back to Mt. Olivet for a minute. There is Jesus, riding on a donkey, his disciples waving palms and praising Him. The Pharisees are outraged, and tell Jesus to silence His disciples, who are praising Him as God. Jesus tells them that if His disciples stop praising Him, the very rocks will cry out. In other words, Jesus, who knew the betrayal that was around the corner from these palm-wavers, forbade them to stop praising Him. It is not our attempts at holiness that are the problem. It is the lack of follow through when the going gets tough.

So, Jesus seems to prefer hypocrisy to total disengagement. Then what is to be done? We follow this Holy Week to its end. What is Jesus’ answer to hypocrisy? The Cross. The whole Old Testament, and even the Gospels, are a story of good intentions that fall totally short. We can’t do it on our own!! Jesus knew that, and that is why He willingly died on the Cross: to release the Holy Spirit that can plant the inner Law within us and through grace, actually make us into who we are called to be.

Obviously, we are not to revel in the fact that we are sinners. The palms themselves give us a clue to our reaction: they are burned next year and placed on our heads as ashes reminding us of our need for repentance. A penitent heart is the only heart that can be open to the life-changing Spirit Jesus came to win for us. So, if you haven’t been to the sacrament of Reconciliation yet this Lent, run! The Lord has a lot prepared for each of us this Holy Week. Let’s wave our palms and rend our hearts and get ready to receive the grace!

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