Grace upon grace…

Titus 2:11-14 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.

Grace. God’s gratuitous gift to humanity. Ever undeserved, often un-requested, sometimes unappreciated, but always worth pondering. The Catechism tells us:

“Grace is a participation in the life of God. It introduces us into the intimacy of Trinitarian life: by Baptism the Christian participates in the grace of Christ, the Head of his Body. As an “adopted son” he can henceforth call God “Father,” in union with the only Son. He receives the life of the Spirit who breathes charity into him and who forms the Church.

“This vocation to eternal life is supernatural. It depends entirely on God’s gratuitous initiative, for he alone can reveal and give himself. It surpasses the power of human intellect and will, as that of every other creature.


(CCC #1997, 1998)

I write this reflection on the feast day of Mary, Mother of God, whom the angel Gabriel hailed as “Full of Grace”. We know that every word spoken by an angel comes directly from God, and each word has weight of its own. “Full of Grace”. These three simple words, applied to this simple peasant girl, enraptured all of heaven.

Take the little invisible word, “of”, defined as expressing the relationship between a scale or measure and a value. What was the measure? Full. What was the value? Grace.

How full is full? When something is full, there is no room in it for anything else. Mary had emptied herself of all that was not God, and so made room in her humble heart for all that God wanted to give her, which was everything, including his own Beloved Son. How empty must she have been to make room for the infinite God to dwell in her. What humility! No spec of a space left where her own will reigned, but her Fiat! was unconditional and unlimited. Therefore, the grace she received was unconditional and unlimited. Full measure given, full value received. What can we learn from this as penitents in the world?

Just as salvation history could not proceed without the cooperation of a humble soul—Mary—so too are we called in our own time to cooperate with grace for the salvation of souls. If we take this seriously—and we must—our own wills must be tied, like hers, to the foot of the cross. Our fiat like hers must be unconditional and unlimited. For us this is impossible, but for God all things are possible.

As members of the Brothers and Sisters of Penance, the Rule we follow is itself a great grace that helps us to die to self, one desire at a time. The longer we live the rule, the more we empty ourselves, and the more we desire to. This too is grace. Our Lord would not call us to this self-emptying if the world were not in such dire need of the grace that he wishes to pour on it through us, whether we see it or not.

Of course, the principle grace, as St. Paul tells us in the above scripture passage, is Our Lord, Jesus Christ himself, “who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.”

January is the time of new beginnings. The world calls them resolutions, but I like the way St. Francis put it. St. Bonaventure tells us that towards the end of his life St. Francis would tell the other friars: “Let us begin again, brothers, for up until now, we have done little or nothing.”

Let us, too, begin anew to empty ourselves, that we may be conduits of as much grace as God desires to pour into the world through us.

Blessed New Year to you and yours in Our Lord, Jesus Christ and his most Immaculate Mother. St. Francis and St. Clare, pray for us!

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A Penitent in Medjugorje, Part III…

Prayers and indulgences    

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The grave of Fr. Slavko Barbaric

I took many prayer requests to Medjugorje with me, some for my intentions, and some for others. All BSP members and blog readers and their intentions were included in my list. In addition to prayers for conversions, my list also included prayers for the repose of the souls of my husband and my dad. It was providential that we would be in Medjugorje for the Feasts of All Saints and All Souls and for the octave of indulgences the Church makes available for the souls in purgatory from November 1-8. With my family members in mind, I gave all my prayers to Mary to distribute in the best way possible. One of conditions for the indulgence is to visit a cemetery each day you wish to gain it. I was able for seven of those eight days to visit the cemetery near St. James Church, where Fr. Slavko is buried. He was the priest who, initially a skeptic, became a believer and supporter of the visionaries and the message of Medjugorje.

The “Five Stones”

Our Lady of Medjugorje. Her veil blows in the breeze in the way the children first saw her. The Rosary beads are made of local stone.

There have been countless messages attributed to Our Lady of Medjugorje, Queen of Peace. She has given the world through these visionaries a peace plan in what have come to be known as the “five stones”, the weapons that will defeat the evil one. Thesis in reference to the five stones David used to slay Goliath. They are: 1) Prayer with the heart, especially the rosary; 2) Eucharist/Mass/Adoration; 3) Scripture reading; 4) Fasting; 5) Monthly confession (at least). I was amazed to see how the locals have embraced the messages. The rosary is prayed in the church every evening and the evening Mass was overflowing the whole time we were there.

Adoration, we were told repeatedly, is the heart of Medjugorje for both locals and pilgrims. Mary is there, pointing to her Son as she always does. The adoration chapel is open every afternoon, and evening adoration is held a couple of times per week. On the Saturday night we were there, Adoration was held from 9:00 to 10:00 pm. We estimated that there were 5- 6,000 people there from all over the world—just another Saturday night in Medjugorje!

The villagers also embrace fasting, which Our Lady has asked to be done on Wednesdays and Fridays. She has said that the best fast is on bread and water. The local bakery gives away free bread on those days, and the restaurants too. Confession is also important to the villagers. In fact there is a “Croatian only” set of confessionals reserved for the local residents so that they don’t have to wait in line with the pilgrims. It is a small concession, given the unimaginable sacrifice involved in being a popular pilgrimage destination.

In the early days Our Lady chastised the residents for not taking seriously the messages. She needed them to take them to heart so that they could minister to the many pilgrims who would be coming. For the most part they heeded her request. Although there may be people who are taking advantage of certain opportunities, I saw many generous souls serving Our Lady in many ways.

Priests

We attended English Mass daily at 10:00 am.

It was so edifying to see, every day, numerous priests concelebrating the various Masses. These are priest who are living Our Lady’s messages, tending their flocks, and hastening the Triumph of the Immaculate Heart. In Mirjana Soldo’s new autobiography, called, “My Heart Will Triumph”, she says:

I wish I could divulge more about what will happen in the future, but I can say one thing about how the priesthood relates to the secrets. We have this time that we are living in now, and we have the time of the triumph of Our Lady’s heart. Between these two times we have a bridge, and that bridge is our priests. Our Lady continually asks us to pray for our shepherds, as she calls them, because the bridge needs to be strong enough for all of us to cross it to the time of the triumph. In her message of October 2, 2010, she said, “Only alongside our shepherds will my heart triumph.”

Soldo,Mirjana My Heart Will Triumph CatholicShop Publishing 2016 p. 325

Yet another urgent reason to pray for our shepherds!

Two witnesses

One of the priests we had the privilege to hear was Fr. Leon Pereira, originally of Sri Lanka, but now chaplain of the English-speaking pilgrims and priests at Medjugorje. He is a gifted speaker and has a true calling to that holy place. In his talk, he said that Our Lady once showed him how much she loves us; it is as if each person in the world is her only child, echoing what Our Lady has told the visionaries: “If you knew how much I love you, you’d cry for joy.” His powerful testimony is available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QUwVvuPr87Q&t=34s.

“The Castle” of Patrick and Nancy Latta

Another dramatic testimony is the conversion story of Patrick Latta, who was once a very wealthy car dealership owner in Vancouver. He was wealthy, but his life was a mess—until Mary intervened. After his amazing conversion, Patrick and his wife Nancy eventually sold everything in order to serve Our Lady. They built a castle in Medjugorje from which they serve the local poor and provide food and lodging to priests, seminarians and other pilgrims. Patrick’s compelling testimony is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EOSpKcttFhA .

The fruit of hope

For my part, one thing I found to be very deeply moving was to pray and worship with so many pilgrims and priests from around the world, each one praying in their own language. Truly, the language of the Spirit was reversing the division of Babel. It was encouraging to see so many priests there, as well as countless young people, all responding to Mary’s call. It gave me great hope for the future of the Church.

In Medjugorje, I felt a foreshadowing of the Triumph of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. A true reflection of Advent, Our Lady is giving us a time of grace heralding the day when Jesus will be born into the lowly manger of our hearts in a new way so that the great longing of God’s heart will be fulfilled at last. Then, we shall be his people and he shall be our God*. Maranatha! Amen. 

(*To read a collection of bible verses that tell of God’s great longing click here.)

A Penitent in Medjugorje, Part I…

By their fruits…

While the Church has not yet officially ruled on the Medjugorje apparitions that have been allegedly taking place since 1981, it has recognized the fruits of increased faith, conversion, confession and vocations that flow from it. In February this year, Pope Francis appointed Henryk Hoser, retired Archbishop of Warsaw-Praga, as pastoral envoy to Medjugorje. Archbishop Hoser has told Poland’s KAI Catholic news agency that “from a pastoral point of view, there is a very positive result. […] My mission was not to make a judgement on Medjugorje, but to evaluate whether the pastoral ministry was proper and consistent with the doctrine and teaching of the Church, and effective and well-organized. I concluded that this is the case.” He has also said that the biggest phenomenon in Medjugorge is confession. The commission established by Pope Benedict XVI to study the alleged apparitions of Mary at Medjugorje, reportedly voted overwhelmingly to recognise as supernatural the first seven appearances of Mary in 1981. As the alleged apparitions are ongoing, the Vatican cannot make a definitive ruling on them. With that in mind, I wish to share with you some of the blessings and fruits of my pilgrimage there this past fall. To avoid being cumbersome, I have not used the word “alleged” in the following article.

My Pilgrimage

Me in front of St. James Church

In “the world”, penitents are a rare commodity. In Medjugorje, you can’t trip over a rock without falling on one. So, I felt right at home when I was recently a pilgrim there from October 29 to November 8. I had felt called to go there for over 30 years, ever since first hearing about it. If Our Lady is coming all the way from heaven, I thought, the least I can do is meet her partway! But life circumstances seemed never to allow it and I sometimes wondered if I would ever get there. The decades passed, and beyond all hopes and expectations, Our Lady continued to grace the world with her presence in that holy place. I continued to hope and pray that I might get there before the apparitions ceased altogether.

This year brought a deluge of changes for me. I tell people that God did not just turn a page, He closed a book. As you may recall my husband passed away in May and my father in August. Amid those changes I moved to a new city to be near family and to finally be a “close-by grandma”. In addition, there were other changes and challenges as well. After my husband passed, since I really needed to be near family, I rented a place in my new city before my existing house was sold. The housing market was very low, but in my heart I knew I had to go and that I had to trust. I told Our Lady that if my house sold I would try to go to Medjugorje in the fall. Our Lady works fast! The day the movers came to get my belongings was the day I got an offer on my house that led to a sale. The timing was undeniably Our Lady’s. Once that hurdle was passed, going to Medjugorje finally seemed within reach. Our Lady even arranged that a group was leaving from my new city on October 29. Praise God!

There was one complication—due to some foot and hip problems, I could barely walk on level ground in the weeks leading up to the trip. I wondered how I going to make it through the airports, let alone climb Apparition Hill or Cross Mountain. I told my friends and family, Our Lady has made the other arrangements so I’m going! If she wants me to climb Apparition Hill, she’s going to have to carry me. If not, my penance will be to stand at the bottom and pray while watching the others go up. Fiat!

The day of the trip arrived and I set out in the wee hours for the airport. To my surprise, I made it through all the airports without assistance, albeit with persistent pain in my foot and hip. Fiat! After about 24 hours of travel time, our group of 19 Canadian pilgrims arrived at our “pansion” or inn, in Medjugorje. My first hint that Our Lady was not going to go easy on me was that my room was on the third floor, 36 stairs up. Fiat! The innkeeper himself grabbed my bags, hauled them up effortlessly, then disappeared. Thank you, Mama, for that grace!

The rooms were simple, comfortable but not luxurious, perfect for a pilgrim-penitent. Mine had a great view of the chickens and sheep in the yard below, and at night I could see the lighted cross on the top of Cross Mountain. Praise God!

Apparition Hill

Not as easy as it looks!

Our first full day there, I was kind of hoping for a day of subdued activity, but at breakfast our pilgrimage leaders informed us that since the weather was going to be favorable, we were going to climb Apparition Hill that afternoon. Apparition Hill is, I learned, the “easier” of the two climbs, as Cross Mountain is three times higher. Fiat! The able-bodied group members would hike to the hill, but those of us who needed to conserve our strength and pseudo-agility would take a cab to the base of the hill. We would all meet and pray the joyful mysteries together on the way up at the stations provided, with reflections by Fr. Joseph Jacobson, who was our spiritual guide for the pilgrimage. Coming down would be at each our own speed, and hopefully in a controlled manner as the climb was very rocky.

I was shocked at the terrain when I first laid eyes on it! It was as if God had dumped from on high a huge load of boulders with just enough mud to hold them in place. Many of the rocks were sharp, and flat bits were scarce. The climb, I found, was a metaphor for the struggles of life—you can never plan past the next step, and if you think about how hard the journey is going to be, you will give up before you even begin. Sometimes, even what you thought was the right step turns out all wrong. Just. Keep. Going. After all, how did Christ make it up the hill to Calvary? One step at a time.

Our Lady chose to appear in this place, first of all because of the steadfast faith of the villagers, which had held firm through centuries of persecution. As for the terrain, besides the penitential component, Our Lady has told the visionaries she wants pilgrims to see the stones as representing the stony hearts of those who need our prayers and sacrifices.

Our Lady has said that the veil between heaven and earth is very thin at Medjugorje and I believe it! With my physical limitations in mind, you will understand when I say that it was no small thing to find myself, an hour and a half after starting, at the goal of our climb, the statue of Mary which marks the spot where she first appeared to the visionaries in 1981. The Queen of Peace, rewarded my efforts with gifts of hope, comfort, and peace. I was overcome with emotion in that holy place, and still am when I think of it. Our Lady carried me up for sure! It was so humbling to be up there, and I am so grateful!

After that beautiful mountain-top experience I, of course, still had to get down, and the down is even harder than the up! My previously underused muscles were already protesting the uphill climb. Now, a further hour and half down? I picked up my trusty walking stick and started out. Our Lady had further pity on me and sent two angels to help me. A couple of gentlemen from our pilgrim group walked with me to keep me safe, scouting the best path, and guiding each step, extending their hands when I needed it. Truly they were the embodiment of our guardian angels, who also are there as scouts, guides, and a hand to hold, whether we feel it or not.

Despite their efforts, near the end, one of my feet got wedged in a rock with the other foot wedged behind it. I was going down! Because of my walking stick it was a slow fall sideways. I landed—where else—on a rock, next to a thorny bush, which also left its mark. Without my angels I would have had a very hard time getting out of that predicament. I must have landed on my real angel because aside from a 7-inch bruise on my thigh, and a small thorn prick, I suffered no real injuries. When I mentioned my bruise to one of the locals she said, “In Medjugorje, we call those ‘kisses from heaven’.” Upon reflection I can see that Our Lady gave me a very small taste of Calvary—one fall and a small thorn. Yes, it was indeed a kiss from heaven! Fiat! Thank you, Mama!

There is much to ponder in such a climb. I’m sure everyone comes back with their own message or messages. I felt Our Lady was telling me (and all of us) to persevere in our prayers and sacrifices. The evil one wants to discourage us, but our Mother wants us to know that our prayers and sacrifices are bearing abundant fruit. She is always with us as our Mother, strengthening all her dear children for the mission entrusted to us—which often feels like a gruelling climb we are not in shape for. With her at our side, we have nothing to fear. Then what is left for us but to say, Fiat! as we put one foot in front of the other until she calls us home.

(To be continued…)

Me at the top of Apparition Hill!

Making up for what is lacking…

Hebrews 7:26-27 For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself.

Colossians 1:24 I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.

The two scripture passages above—both written by St. Paul—on the surface seem contradictory. Most protestant denominations gloss over the second and don’t really have a theology of suffering. But the Catholic understanding of almost everything in the deposit of faith is not that these two passages are contradictory, but rather that both are true and must be understood together.

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A call to arms…

Ephesians 6:12 “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

In the army, everyone has a duty to fulfill. Some are strategists, some are foot-soldiers, some are mechanics, some are medics, some are support staff. All are important. All are needed. This is the time to discern carefully where we are called to serve in the spiritual battle that is escalating all around us. We don’t have to do it all, but we are, each of us, made for these times and entrusted with a unique mission and the grace needed to fulfill it.

Certainly in this battle against “principalities and powers” penance is needed more than ever. Our Lady has told us so herself in every modern apparition, how urgently it is needed. As a reader of this blog, it is safe to assume that you too feel called in some way to answer Our Lady’s call to do spiritual battle through penance.

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Increasing penance…

“Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practise what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.’” (Matthew 23:1-4)

Do you notice how much more you have to pay for torn blue jeans these days? What used to be seen as a sign of abject poverty is now elevated to a status symbol, a fashion statement. I think this can be seen as a metaphor for the spiritual poverty of our age, a sign of the times. It seems many are no longer ashamed of their spiritual poverty, but wear their spiritual dysfunction as a status symbol, a fashion statement. Their spirit may be in tatters, but they’re too cool to care.

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Crosses…

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 5:1-2)

We all have crosses. And indeed, as Franciscan penitents, we are exhorted to take the words of Christ to heart and live them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mt. 16:24) Knowing that this is our call and living it, however, are two different matters. How often, when a cross is given to us, do we turn our faces, pray for deliverance, tell the Lord, “Not this cross, Lord. It is much too heavy for me! I will carry a cross, just not this one.” How fickle and frail we are! I was struggling last week with a cross of my own when I felt led to pick up the writings of Luisa Piccarreta. Here is what I read:

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Triumph…

Philippians 2:9-11 God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

In her Fatima apparitions, Our Lady told the little visionaries: “In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph.” This was to follow a great chastisement in the world, including wars, sufferings, martyrdom. Our Lady also asked for the consecration of Russia to her Immaculate Heart. There is an ongoing debate as to whether or not the requested consecration of Russia was done to Our Lady’s satisfaction. I personally try not to get drawn into such debates, feeling the issue is best left with the Holy Father and the Bishops. For my part, I have to examine whether or not I have done my part in fulfilling Our Lady’s Fatima requests.

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Serving the Lord through suffering…

Matthew 26:39 My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want, but what you want.

In some Christian circles, any form of suffering, especially if it follows a good deed, is seen as an “attack”. But, I think we do God a disservice if we are too quick to attribute these things to the evil one. I have often thought of what Sirach says about suffering:

“My child, if you aspire to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for an ordeal. Be sincere of heart, be steadfast, and do not be alarmed when disaster comes. Cling to him and do not leave him, so that you may be honoured at the end of your days. Whatever happens to you, accept it, and in the uncertainties of your humble state, be patient, since gold is tested in the fire, and the chosen in the furnace of humiliation.” [Sirach 2:1-5]

Read this again: “If you aspire to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for an ordeal.” How many of us know the truth of this first-hand! St. Theresa of Avila, once complained to the Lord about a trial she was undergoing, to which Jesus replied, “Teresa, that’s how I treat all my friends.” Teresa responded, “No wonder you have so few of them.”

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Trust in God…

Luke 21:9-19 When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for such things must happen first, but it will not immediately be the end.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place; and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky. “Before all this happens, however, they will seize and persecute you, they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons, and they will have you led before kings and governors because of my name. It will lead to your giving testimony. Remember, you are not to prepare your defense beforehand, for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute. You will even be handed over by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends, and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name, but not a hair on your head will be destroyed. By your perseverance you will secure your lives.”

The Mass readings in November are somber in tone—dire even. The fact that the month preceding Advent offers Mass readings that are meant to shake us up, is an annual reminder that followers of Christ should guard against getting too comfortable; the Lord, through the Church, is warning us against complacency. We are not meant for this world and so the world will necessarily hate us. I heard a bishop say once that if you’re fitting in quite well with the world, you’re doing it wrong! Those of us striving to live “in the world, but not of it” would do well to check ourselves often. The pull of the world is subtle; before we know it, we can be pulled under! We must remain vigilant!

However, if we only look at the warnings in the November readings we are missing something crucial. Read again the last half of the above Scripture passage. The Lord is promising to be with us in all our trials in a powerful way. He promises wisdom to confound our persecutors; he promises the greatest reward of all for what we suffer in his name—eternal life with him.

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