One Theresa at a time: A quick note to new Catholics

By this time of year, newly baptized Catholics have really begun to settle in to their pews, physically and metaphorically. The solemn rites are long since accomplished, the party is over, and now the hard and joyful work of practicing the faith begins.

At this stage, it’s not uncommon for new converts to begin to take on a slightly baffled look, because while they definitely felt overcome with Paschal joy at the time, they may now also feel overwhelmed with . . . Catholicism in general. Specifically, the vast and bewildering array of cultural and liturgical and pious practices and customs and traditions that never came up in RCIA, but which everyone around seems to know about, and treats as if they’re completely foundational to their faith. Saints, prayers, holy days, sacramentals, pieties, practices, not to mention synods and sodalities and bitter Twitter fights over doctrine. It’s all a bit much. 

Fear not, my brothers and sisters in Christ. I’ve been a Catholic for most of my life, and I feel exactly the same way. Just about every time I spend time with a large group of Catholics, in or outside of church, I end up hearing something that makes me feel like a newcomer. 

I have come to conclude that the Catholic church is, like, really really big, and as such, it is, like, really really full of stuff. I’m never going to feel completely caught up, and that’s okay. As long as I keep trying to come back to Jesus, it’s okay. 

Here are just a few of the things that I, as a nearly lifelong Catholic, still find confounding:

I can’t keep my creeds straight. When I was little, my mother had me memorize the Nicene creed. Or possibly the Apostle’s Creed. It was definitely the one that we didn’t say at Mass, and I could say it! as long as we weren’t at Mass. If we were at Mass, I could only say the one everyone else was saying, whichever one that was. You just get swept along with the general rumble of the crowd and you don’t stand a chance. I fully understand that people have shed blood over whether it ought to be homoousios or homoiousios, and I admire that, but if I were at Nicea, let me tell you, I would have not have been helpful. The body is not made up of one part, but many, and I am the part saying, “Wha?” and I’m too old to change. And yet I am still a real Catholic. 

I can only know about one Theresa at a time. There are about fourteen different St Theresas (including Thereses and Teresas, not to mention Thérèses). Some of them said something about how people are like flowers; some of them apparently are little flowers in some way that escapes me at the moment. We have a picture of one of them dressed up like an entirely different saint, purely to be confusing. The one I’m very clear on is Mother Teresa, because I remember when she was alive and hanging out with President Reagan, who was also alive at the time. I saw them on TV, so that helps. But then there is the Theresa with the nice cheeks. You know the one. Beyond that, I am completely at sea, and when people start going on about the Interior Castle, my eyes glaze over and I wonder if there will be sandwiches at this thing, or what. And yet I am still a real Catholic. 

I have no idea how to say the Divine Mercy Chaplet. I’m very much in favor of mercy, but when I see a chaplet, it’s pretty clear to me that that’s just a stumpy little rosary, and I feel that this is much easier to lose in the washing machine than a normal rosary. So what you should do is get yourself a normal rosary, say part of it, and fall asleep. Boom, divine mercy. Boom, real Catholic! 

The liturgical calendar in general.  I’m already losing my mind over here trying to keep Christ in Christmas while buying presents for everybody but not too many presents, and making sure we’re all sufficiently praying for the souls in purgatory while we dress up like zombies, because if we don’t do that, we’ll drive our children away from the faith, and so on. And we won’t even talk about what it does to your psyche to cook for Passover while you’re fasting on Good Friday.

So I have given myself a pass for, for instance, having to look up every single Holy Day of Obligation every single time, every single year, and I don’t even feel bad about it. I only have so many brain cells. When I hear about people also keeping track of First Fridays or First Saturdays and then also ember days and rogation days and whatever the hell it is, I just assume they are praying for me, or people very much like me, and it will all even out. See above: Divine Mercy. Boom. 

In short, it’s a big church. A very very very big church. And if you keep coming across things that are unfamiliar, don’t think of it as evidence that you’re a stranger. File it under “treats for later,” and maybe you’ll get to it in this world, and maybe you won’t. But someone is definitely praying for you, and we’re so glad you jumped in and became a real Catholic. Just keep coming back to Jesus, and you’ll be okay. 

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A version of this essay was first published on August 1, 2022 at The Catholic Weekly

Dr. Mellifluus on distraction in prayer

Today, a few days before his feast day, is a great day for this story about St. Bernard of Clairvaux:

Bernard was riding his horse up into the Alps to give a retreat, and as he passed a farmer along the road he heard a loud grunt. He stopped to look down at the him, and the farmer remarked, “I envy you, with nothing to do but pray while I have to kill myself working in this rocky soil.”

Bernard said, “Well, praying can be even harder work that digging around those stones.”

“I doubt that very much,” the man said, “With that beautiful horse and the gorgeous saddle, what do you know of hardship?”

Up till then Bernard hadn’t given any attention to his mount. He said, ”It is a beautiful horse, isn’t it? I’ll tell you what, if you can say the Lord’s Prayer from beginning to end without taking your mind off it, I’ll give you this horse.”

“That’s so generous of you,” the man said; and he began praying, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be…do I get the saddle too?” 

(more here from Word on Fire) 

I knew the basic story, but not the context that the man considered prayer easy; and I didn’t realize it was St. Bernard who featured as the wise monk.  St. Bernard is the patron of our local church, but I know almost nothing about him (but I’m reading up! Here’s some great information from Amy Wellborn). The white plaster statue of him that used to be in the narthex includes a large bee near his feet — I guess because he is known as “Doctor Mellifluus,” or “honey-sweet doctor [of the Church]” because of his sweetly flowing eloquence.

Speaking of distraction from prayer, that narthex is where parents of small children often find themselves when they’re fulfilling their Sunday obligation in the most basic way: by being bodily inside the walls, even if they can’t catch more than a second or two of actual prayer time. Our parish is pretty kid-friendly, but the narthex makes a good rumpus room for the truly bonkers; and that is where St. Bernard stood, too.

One mother I saw kept her kid happy by carrying him up to the feet of the statue, finding the bee, making contact with her son’s little hand clasped in hers, and going, “BZZT!” Kid laughs, forgets to wreak havoc, everyone’s happy. Honey sweet, indeed.

We can draw a few things from this:

First, that saints don’t require us to know anything about them. They’re here to help, period. St. Bernard, who happens to be a great Biblical scholar and reformer, is perfectly content to also be Anonymous Plaster Bee Guy Who Entertains Buggy Kids. It’s a very good thing to do your homework and get to know the saints, but you can also just stretch out your hand and ask for help from all of God’s friends the saints, and they’ll oblige. I can think of numerous stories of people reaching out to saints, drawn in by some random appealing detail, and they turned out later to be a very willing patron. There’s a pretty good Thomas More story on this theme.

Second, if a quick “bzzt” of contact is all you can manage in your prayer life, then DO THAT. Don’t wait until you can get on your knees and say twenty decades without your mind wandering — because, as the story demonstrates, focused prayer is harder than it looks, even highly motivated people can’t seem to help but be distracted. It’s just the human condition. So the remedy is to keep making contact, keep coming back, keep regrouping, keep putting a check on that tendency we have, like restless kids in the pew, to lose focus and bug out.

We don’t have to be the most skillful bees; it’s God that will bring honey from the rock, if he so choses. But you do have to show up; and you do have to eventually acknowledge that it’s not about your efforts, at all. It’s about Jesus. “All food of the soul is dry”, he professed, “unless it is moistened with this oil; insipid, unless it is seasoned with this salt. What you write has no savour for me unless I have read Jesus in it.”

Third, I forget what three was for. Oh yes! St. Bernard, pray for us.

Bzzt!

 

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Image: honey bee, photo by Oregon State University via Flickr (Creative Commons)

No holy eyerolls on the Assumption

A friend was very reasonably grousing about holy cards that make saints look like they’ve died halfway through a seizure. The mouths hang slightly open, the eyes are rolled up, and they’re pale as a corpse. That’s how sanctity is portrayed.

This gooey, sentimental style has just about died out, thankfully. I do understand why it was once popular, though. Artists were trying to depict someone who was in the world but not of the world. The rolled-up eyes and otherworldly stare were intended to show a holy detachment in a saint whose entire attention is fixed on Heaven.

Unfortunately, what it conveys to modern people is: “Saints are creepy weirdos who don’t care about you and are definitely not like you.” Pretty much the opposite of what we should be hearing, when we think of the universal call to grow in holiness and to be saints ourselves.

Another friend, an artist, commented,

“Honestly, though, anyone looking up to heaven looks pretty dumb. Just like anyone looking down at a baby looks pretty. Mary got lucky.”

It was just a quip, but she is onto something. There’s a reason we’re more drawn to this look:

than this one:

The otherworldly glow of her skin is warm, like embers, bidding you to draw closer, rather than pallid, like leprosy, repelling you; and her tender, gracious, intimate downward gaze at her beloved Child expresses the holiness the more sentimental artist was grasping at.

The thing is, in this picture, Mary is looking to Heaven. She is finding it in her son.

I once heard the account of the annunciation, and had a thought I’d never had before. The angel comes to Mary and says,

“Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

But (as you know), “Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” 

Ha! I thought. The angel — an angel — just told her, “You are going to have a baby who will be THE SON OF GOD and He will BE KING OF EVERYTHING AND RULE FOR EVER. And her question is, “Okay, but about this pregnancy . . . ”

She’s not wondering about the theology of how a human child can be the son of God. She’s not thinking about salvation history or heavenly thrones or eternity —  not right this moment. She just wants to know about her and the baby, and also about her husband-to-be. First things first. This is the conversation she wants to have with an archangel: Let’s talk about my son, that’s going to be in my body, because it’s personal.

That’s how Mary does things. There’s that downward gaze we associate with her. So much better than rolled-up eyes! It’s a good look, on Mary and on all of us: that personal, intimate, “You’re real and so am I” connection. Not a faraway gaze at something beyond the mysterious beyond, but at the Heaven that has located itself directly in our lives. And despite how artists often choose to portray it, I believe that, even during the Assumption, and most definitely afterwards, Mary did not forget her little ones, and however it happened that she was assumed into heaven, you would not catch her rolling her eyes away from us. 

So this is how we can be like Mary, if you are looking for a way: Look to the ones who are closest to us. Look to their needs. Take their day-to-day existence seriously as our own concerns. That includes beloved family and friends, and the ones who are easy to smile at and cherish, but also the people whom God puts close to us whether we wanted to cross paths or not: the crabby customer service lady, the cantor whose warbling gets on your nerves, the snotty stranger who comments on your social media. And the family and friends who are behaving in ways that do not invite us to instinctively draw closer. If we can, it would be a good goal to remember Mary’s gaze — that intimate, personal, attentive focus — and try to adopt that. Because that’s what holiness looks like. 

Sometimes, let’s be real, the best we can do is recruit Mary to our side, and ask her to be the one to be loving and attentive, when we can’t or shouldn’t get too close to someone ourselves. This is holy, too, and this is a way to sanctify our relationships with other people. Mary will be there. She will do that for us. She will be the person who will make it personal. 

But holiness has to be personal. If it’s impersonal and abstract, if it remains closed off from other people, then it’s not holiness. Like it or not, sanctifying our responses to each other is how we will find Heaven. Don’t roll your eyes at me! Not in exasperation, and not in sentimental piety, either. This is how we find Heaven. It’s personal.

 

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A version of this essay was originally published in The Catholic Weekly in December of 2017.

Images:
Photo of St. Gerard statue holy card courtesy of a friend
Adoration of the Shepherds (detail) by Gerard van Honthorst [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]

What I’m watching, reading, and listening to this week

 . . . before falling asleep on the couch with a shoulder full of drool. 

WATCHING:

Moone Boy

Hilarious, delightful, insane, a teensy bit blasphemous maybe. Martin is the youngest child of a slightly terrible Irish family in the 80’s, and he and his imaginary friend, played by Chris O’Dowd, get into various ridiculous scrapes. I like Chris O’Dowd, but the imaginary friend bit is actually the weakest part of the show, I think.

The show is very Irish, so they get more digs in against the Church than we’re used to seeing, and though it’s not mean-spirited, I think they cross the line sometimes (crucifix gags, Eucharist gags). Some of the less edgy religion jokes are so funny, though, and I just love how the family clearly all love each other but kind of can’t stand each other. It’s just a very sweet, silly show that goes in some unexpected directions. A real gem. 

Here’s a clip that includes the theme song, and one of my favorite bits, where all the dads form a social group to commiserate about how awful their kids are

“Connor and Jonner Bonner, get back here!” The kid who plays the main character is so good, and so is his weird friend. Looking forward to seeing him in other things. 

We have been watching it on Amazon Prime. I believe it’s also on Hulu.

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Mr. Inbetween

Ehh. We gave it several episodes, and I just didn’t care for it. This Australian show follows a single dad who makes his living as a hitman while caring for his disabled brother. It was billed as a dark comedy, and maybe I just brought the wrong expectations to it, but it just wasn’t landing right with me. I can’t actually remember what I didn’t like about it, which makes this less of a review and more of a request: Should I keep watching? Does it get more appealing after the first 3-4 episodes, or are they a fair representation of what the show is like? 

Here’s the trailer:

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Better Call Saul

We’re halfway through season 5 (I think), and while I’m still consistently impressed with this show, I’m not enjoying this season as much as previous seasons. I still think it’s one of the best-crafted shows on TV — best casting, best characters, best dialogue, smartest, funniest, saddest, most realistic relationships, you name it — but some of the past seasons were just delightful, and this season feels more workmanlike, like they have a list of things they need to accomplish before the end of the season, and it’s just not as much fun. Anyway, still a better show than Breaking Bad, and that is freaking saying something. 

Here’s the Season 5 trailer:

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READING

I’m super bored with the books I’m reading on my own, but we have some good read-alouds going:

Ronia the Robber’s Daughter by Astrid Lindgren (author of Pippi Longstocking). The book is not illustrated, by the cover design of the edition we got is by the wonderful Trina Schart Hyman, who apparently got Corrie to model for her.

Very funny, very exciting, and really makes you long for adventure in the natural world. Ronia is the only child of a robber chieftain, a strong, happy, wild person, born on the night of a terrible storm, when harpies swarmed through the air and a giant bolt of lightning cleft the ancient fortress in half. Ronia has just discovered that another child, the son of a rival robber chieftain, has moved into the other side, which is separated from their living quarters by a bottomless chasm — and that the two robbers were friends as children.

It’s a very smooth, natural translation. Here’s a sample of the text, so you can see how fluid it is for reading aloud:

I’ve noted before that Lindgren is one of the few authors who is able to pull of characters who are both interesting and kind; no easy feat. The chapters are relatively short and satisfying. Has some spooky magical peril that might be too much for very sensitive kids.

We watched part of the Studio Ghibli animated series but eventually lost interest, I think partially because it actually followed the book too carefully, which made the pacing odd for screen. 

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Saints Around the World

We’ve been reading a chapter a night after family prayers.These are mostly saints we’ve never heard of, including lots of saints from relatively recent times, and from countries that we don’t know a lot about.

The stories can be read in just a few minutes, and Hunter-Kilmer does a good job of highlighting a single theme in a way that rings true but makes you want to learn more about that saint’s life.  The illustrations are bright and dignified, but are a little odd to my eyes — they make the saints all look sort of like children, but not quite — but they seem to appeal to my kids, and the illustrator has gone to a lot of trouble to include accurate details that add to your understanding of the history.

I wish we had had this book when the kids were searching around for saints to pick for confirmation names, but in any case, it’s a great daily reminder of the neverending variety there is in the universal call to holiness, and about the universality of the Church. Highly recommended.

The tone and reading level is aimed at maybe grade 3, but the material is more than interesting enough to capture the attention of all ages; and although it doesn’t go into gory detail, it doesn’t sugarcoat the facts of martyrdom or persecution. 

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I also read the first big chunk of Tolkein’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to the kids

and stopped right after the knight’s head got chopped off, in hopes that they would be so captivated, they’d clamor for more. They did not. Oh well. 

Still haven’t seen the movie. I will admit that it’s been many years since I’ve read the book myself, and I feel like I remember the main points, but I wanted to be able to argue with smart people about it, so I wanted to brush up on it first. The upshot of this strategy is that I have neither re-read the book nor watched the movie, and now I’m too tired to do anything but fall asleep on the couch at night. Good one, Sim. 

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LISTENING TO

Nothing. I don’t know. I need something new. I have discovered that there is one public radio show that I will absolutely not listen to no matter how desperate I am for diversion, and that show is On The Media. I’d rather be alone with my thoughts, if you can imagine such a thing. 

I’m giving away FOUR books by Tomie dePaola!

Tomie dePaola is a beloved author and illustrator for good reason, and in addition to his dozens of charming and lovely books about Strega Nona and Big Anthony, he published many Catholic books, including books on the saints, Bible stories, and other religious works. Ignatius Press with Magnificat has recently been reprinting some of these in hardcover. I got to review four of them, and they’ve given me four to give away to you! The titles:

Queen Esther
Brother Francis of Assisi
Noah and the Ark
Mary, the Mother of Jesus

Enter by using the form at the end of the post. 

If you don’t win, or if you just want to order some or all of the books, I also have a 25% off code for these four books.

Use the coupon code STOMIE25 when you order any of these four books from Ignatius and get a 25% discount starting today and ending Saturday, Nov. 21 at midnight. 

And now for the books! 

Queen Esther (first published 1986) A simple and dignified telling of the story of Esther, the Jewish woman who was chosen for her beauty by the Persian king, and who risked her own life to protect her people.

Esther is rendered in blues and grays, very elegant but rather severe and sad, which seems right to me. She didn’t ask to be put in that position, but she did what had to be done once she was there. 

A good true “princess” story about a girl chosen for her beauty, who musters up courage and strength for her people. 

The story is somewhat simplified, good for young kids, and is nicely dramatic

The final page notes that her story is commemorated on the Jewish feast Purim. “On Purim, Jews give gifts to the poor and one another. This spring holiday often falls during Lent, when Catholics recall the courageous faith of Queen Esther.” I didn’t realize this was so, but he’s right! The Mass readings during Lent tell her story, paired with an exhortation to ask God for what we want and trust he will give it to us. 

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Brother Francis of Assisi (first published 1982) 
I had this one when it was first published, and as a result, I’ve always been a little afraid of St. Francis, as is appropriate. He is most certainly not the fuzzy wuzzy pal to our furry friends that pop culture has turned him into, but was an intense, passionate, singleminded man.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s not a scary or graphic book, but it doesn’t shy away from how hard Francis was on himself.

I had a hard time getting through the Pope’s dream where Francis holds up the crumbling walls of the Church. Oh boy. Give yourself time to compose yourself if you’re reading this one aloud.

It does include favorite stories, like Francis preaching to the birds, and dealing with the wolf of Gubbio,

and also has some lesser known stories, like Francis allowing himself to indulge in some honey almond cakes made for him by a patroness,

and a story about Francis recreating a manger scene and being visited by a real holy child who smiles at Francis and strokes his beard.

And here — get ready — here is Francis receiving the stigmata

This is one of de Paola’s longer books at 47 pages, and it includes the Canticle of the Sun and a timeline of Francis’ life, including his and Clare’s feast days. Good stories about Clare and her sisters, as well. The illustrations were painstakingly researched on site, and you get a real sense of place, as well as a sense of who Francis really was. Excellent. 

*****

Noah and the Ark (first published 1983) I struggle with children’s books about Noah’s ark! I know it has animals and a rainbow, but it’s not really a children’s story, and it bothers me when it’s portrayed as cutesy or rollicking. DePaola’s version avoids this, and is told very simply and has a sort of mythical air to it, which works well.

God is shown as a powerful, bright hand emerging mystically from the heavens, and the animals are animals, not cartoonish sidekicks

DePaola’s mastery of color is on full display here. There are two pages with no text, just the flood waters:

and then the next page pulls back a bit and shows the ark still being tossed on the waves, but with the threatening clouds receding. 

A solid rendition, bright and dignified. 32 pages, for children ages 5 and up. 

*****

And now for the crown jewel of these new editions!

Mary, the Mother of Jesus (first published 1995) 33 pages, and there is a LOT in here. An astonishing book, luminous, illuminating. If you’re looking for a religious book to give a child for Christmas, this is the one.

It covers the whole life of Mary, from before her conception to her assumption and coronation, and it draws on scripture and also on pious legend, including things like the child Mary climbing the steps to the temple by herself,

and the staff of Joseph miraculously flowering. It also, to my surprise, describes Mary as gently dying and being laid in a tomb, with Thomas meeting an angel who has him roll the stone away and find her winding sheets left behind. My kids were a little dismayed, having been taught (by me!) that Mary didn’t die, but was assumed into heaven body and soul without dying first. It turns out there’s no actual dogma definitively saying whether she died or not. In any case, the illustration of her assumption got me right in the kishkes:

Reading the whole thing from start to finish helped me remember what a straight up good story it is, and how many angels came to this family. 

All the illustrations are striking, and the expressions on the (clearly middle eastern) faces are subtle and thought-provoking.  Here is Mary proud but protective as the wise men appear to visit her little son

Here are the parents angry, dismayed, and confused to find Jesus in the temple:

Here is Mary calmly and knowingly, with a glimmer of a smile, telling the stewards at Cana to do whatever Jesus tells them

and look at this angel, busting through into the room of this young girl with her long braid

Extraordinary. It says ages 7 and up, and honestly I would give this book to an adult convert to introduce him to Mary. It’s so lovely and heartfelt. Each section is introduced with a short excerpt from the liturgy of the hours. So good. 

That’s it! Good luck! You have until Friday the 20th to enter. 

a Rafflecopter giveaway

If you can’t see the Rafflecopter form, click this link and it will take you there. 

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P.S., Did I ever tell you my Tomie dePaola story? It’s not a very good story, but it’s what I’ve got. In second grade, I won a Young Author’s contest (The Day It Rained Piano Keys, by Simmy Prever. No copies extant) and dePaola presented the awards, and each winner got a kiss on the cheek. I’d been reading his books steadily my whole life, and almost forty years later, I finally got up my nerve to ask him for an interview, because he lived in NH. I wanted to know what his favorite book was, and what his relationship was with the Church, and how hard it was to paint the face of Jesus. And if he knew someone like Bambalona. So I put in my request and I waited with bated breath for his response, and then two weeks later, he died.

That’s my story. I don’t think I actually killed him, but if you want to talk to someone, my advice is to do it now, not later. SIGH. 

Why do we pray for healing from saints who were not healed?

Every once in a while, you’ll come across someone who giggles at the Catholic practice of honoring a saint on the day of his death, rather than on the day of his birth. They assume this means that Catholics are creepy and morbid (which, okay, is kind of true) or that Catholics are metal and hardcore (which is also sometimes true). Or that Catholics are just kind of weird (which is definitely true).

Of course the real reason we venerate a saint on the day of his death is that it is his birth day: The day of his birth into eternal life.

I was thinking of this when someone posted a prayer request for a friend battling cancer. She mentioned the name of the patron saint of cancer patients, and it suddenly occurred to me how strange that is:  The patron saint died of cancer, and that’s how she became the one we pray to when we want someone to survive cancer. Kind of weird!

There is not, as far as I can tell, any official system for how a saint acquires patronage, but it’s common for them to become the patron saint of the thing that killed them (or of people dealing with the thing that killed them). They’re often portrayed with the thing that killed them — a wheel, a sword — perhaps giving the impression that that thing is what they set out to make their life about. “Hey, it’s-a me, the axe in the head guy!” they seem to say.

But of course it’s the Catholics left behind after their death who decided that that would be Their Main Thing. This is clearly related to the idea that their feast day is the day they died. If it was cancer that killed them, then cancer is the thing that freed them from mortality and let them enter into eternal life. If it was leprosy that killed them, then leprosy was their ticket to heaven. And so on.

Or is that it? I think this view misses the mark and makes Catholics into the morbid, death-loving ghouls we’re sometimes accused of being. If Catholics were 100 per cent on board with the idea that the thing that kills you is the best thing that ever happened to you, then why would we, for instance, ask the patron saint of cancer patients to intercede for the healing of cancer patient?

Because that is what we do: We don’t pray, “O dear Saint Mervintrude, patron of wheelbarrows, my friend is in the hospital after having been run over by a rogue wheelbarrow. Please let him die soon.” Instead, we pray, “Please restore him to life and health.”

So which is it? Do Catholics yearn for a holy death in the company of saints who also died that way, or do Catholics look for escape from death through the intercession of saints who didn’t escape?

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image of Peter of Verona, the axe-in-head guy via Wikimedia Commons  license

A hymn to household saints

For all the saints
Who’ve lost their arms and head;
For those whose poor legs
Are now duct tape instead;
For those long gone
Beneath my bad kid’s bed:
Alleluia, Alleluia!

For all the saints
Whose words are super true,
Who labored hard
To preach to me and you:
Please try again,
Until your face is blue:
Alleluia, Alleluia!

For all the saints
Whose names our babies bear,
Please take their hands
(And maybe brush their hair).
We’re working hard,
Not getting anywhere.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

For all the saints
Up on those dusty shelves.
You see the pits
The human spirit delves.
Ask God for mercy.
We can’t save ourselves.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

For all our saints,
This day is just for you.
You’re with God now.
You need something to do?
Then pray for us!
We’re leaning hard on you.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Padre Pio’s relics touring North America (and here’s what my husband said about his heart)

Relics of Padre Pio, including his glove and robe, a lock of his hair, a sweat-soaked handkerchief from his deathbed, some blood-stained cotton gauze, and scabs from his stigmata will be visiting several churches in North America for veneration by the faithful.

Yeah, it’s weird! Our faith is weird. 

Here is the full list of cities the relics will visit.

In 2016, the beloved saint’s heart came to Immaculate Conception Church in Lowell, MA, and my husband Damien, who is a newspaper reporter, went to see and venerate it. I asked him a few questions about his experience (originally published in 2016).

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What made you want to go and see Padre Pio’s heart? 

I really didn’t know that much about Padre Pio, other than the stigmata and “Pray, Hope, and Don’t Worry.” I found out about his heart coming to the area just a couple of days before. The relic’s first stop was in Lowell, Massachusetts, which is a 10-minute drive from the paper’s offices. I figured I could get something pretty interesting out of a saint’s heart, and I would get a chance to go see a relic as part of my job. Maybe not entirely noble, but I’m busy.

I like relics, and I like that Catholics have this weird and intense spirituality that includes things like hearts, and fingers, and bits of the True Cross, and incorruptible saints. It’s hard to describe to outsiders, and it is as strange as anything, but it somehow feels right.

What was the scene like in the church? What was the mood like among the people there? 

The line to get in went outside the church. I was later told more than 3,000 people went to this church to see Padre Pio’s heart. There were a lot of people from different religious orders, and a few oddballs, but I was kind of taken aback by how many normal looking people were there. Lots of senior citizens and moms with kids, lots of guys in suits, stopping by on their lunch break. It was a big mix of people. The folks in line with me were really excited to be there.

Inside the church, the priests were leading a rosary in French, and Spanish, and English. Lowell is a big, old New England mill town, with a ton of French Canadian immigrants from decades ago, and a new influx of Latino immigrants. It’s a very Catholic city. But it wasn’t just Lowell people there. There were people from all over New England making the pilgrimage.

What did the actual relic look like? How were people venerating it? 

A stern-looking Capuchin held the reliquary that contained the heart, and people would get a chance to touch it. One by one, they would genuflect and either touch the reliquary, or kiss it. Some people brought prayer cards to touch to the reliquary.

It’s hard to describe, because it was hard to look at. It was red, and in two connected parts. There seemed to be some white bone underneath it. I say it is hard to look at, because I was overcome with a sense of too-muchness. It was too much to see. Not in a gross way, but in a personal way; here was Padre Pio, showing something deeply personal about himself to me.

It wasn’t until I got outside that I realized I was overcome with emotion. I was happy to nearly the point of tears. I felt like something heavy and difficult had been taken away, but I don’t even know what.

Do you feel any differently about Padre Pio now than you did before?

I’ve been reading about him since yesterday, and I am trying to take the experience I had by touching the reliquary that held his heart, and bring it to what I can learn about him.

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Photos by Damien Fisher, used with permission

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St. Elizabeth the Unspecified, pray for us

One of my regrets (and man, I have a million) is that I’m not doing a great job introducing my kids to the saints. We have made a few stabs and this and that, but I’m not hugely devoted to any particular saint myself, so it just doesn’t come naturally.

We had a few saint biography collections when I was growing up, and I did read them repeatedly; but I think they ended up doing more harm than good, and I ended up with a bunch of ideas that were hard to shed. Namely: (a) saints were born that way (“before she even learned to talk, tiny Wiffletrude used to weep at her mother’s breast because it made her think of how Jesus thirsted on the cross.” That kind of thing) and (b) if I did become a saint, it was only a matter of time before the demonic attacks would begin, with bed shaking and foot clawing and stuff, and that did not sound great.

I also worried a lot about how poorly I would do when the Romans gave me one more chance to renounce Christ before cutting my skin off. I did figure that, if, because of my great beauty, I became unwilling but gentle queen of the land, I would definitely be the one who distributed bread to the peasants, like, 24/7.

I ended up with two patron saints: Unspecified Elizabeth and Michael the Archangel. And also a guardian angel. Do I remember that I have these holy ones watching over me? No, I do not. I’m just a lonely loner on a lonely road. Alone.

Terrible religious art also had a lot to answer for. Only very weird kids think, “Oh yeah, I can picture myself holding a palm branch with three fingers, with my eyeballs rolled up and a bunch of wispy roses framing my person at all times. Yep, that’s me. ” The state of religious art is definitely improving, and it’s also immensely helpful to learn about saints who are recent enough to appear in photos. Hagiographies have also gotten much better in recent years. Saints come across much more like actual, specific people, rather than goopy spirituality dolls.

Anyway, this gap in our family’s spirituality always comes into focus when one of my kids is preparing for confirmation. (In our area, they’re transitioning to restored order of sacraments, so confirmation happens when a kid is in his early teens.) They have to choose a confirmation patron saint and write a short essay. IS CATASTROPHE. I make some feeble suggestions which are met with floppiness. I point them toward some books which promptly slither into the couch crack. Wishing to appear hip and cyber, I suggest Jen Fulwiler’s Saint Name Generator; then I get distracted by Facebook and forget about the whole thing until the emails from the DRE get really insistent. And that’s what they mean when they say parents are a child’s primary educators.

However! They always end up choosing a bona fide saint with an actual biography attached to them, and no one has chosen a patron who clearly just got called up for the cool name. Not a St. Désirée or St. Gaspar de Bufalo or St. Lawdog in the bunch. Whether any of my kids have formed any kind of meaningful devotion to their patrons, I do not know.

But it occurs to me that, even if they never learned a single real fact about their saint, or said a single prayer to them, much less formed some kind of genuine spiritual friendship or devotion, the patron saint is still devoted to the confirmandi. And the same would be true even if some kid chose a saint purely to annoy their parents or solely so their new initials would spell out F.U.N.K or something. Right? You choose a patron, and they’re in, and that means they’re praying for you for the rest of your life, whether you think about it or not.

I don’t think it’s necessary to believe that you have been somehow spiritually nudged without your knowledge in the direction of the saint that’s just right for you. It’s possible, and I’ve heard plenty of stories where someone chooses something randomly, and it ends up being devastatingly relevant. But in either case, a spiritual friendship is a real thing, even if it comes about by chance and only goes one way; and a saint is, among other things, someone who’s always willing to try to bring someone closer to God.

That’s all I got. Like so many other things in Catholicism, it’s far less about our own efforts and merits than we realize, and it works out to be a pretty good deal for us. Salut! I mean, ora pro nobis.

But what if I don’t love God?

They really, really loved God, enough to willingly die for Him, enough to renounce their families for Him, enough to cheerfully surrender their riches and beauty and power for Him, enough to praise Him with their last dying breaths.

And I? I didn’t love God. I didn’t even like Him.

That worried me.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.