In Christ all things hold together…

In (Christ) all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:16-17)

 In one of his appearances to St. Catherine of Siena, Jesus told her, “In his ignorance man treats himself very cruelly. My care is constant, but he turns my life-giving gifts into a source of death.” In other words, what our Lord gives us for our good, we misuse to the point of causing ourselves grave harm. Consequently, in our willful disobedience, we are running headlong into destruction.

There are all manner of theories out there as to why the world is careening out of control on so many fronts. Even if you believe in climate change, it is vastly inadequate to explain the confluence of calamities—natural, economic, political, and social, not to mention the rebellions, protests, and chaos—that currently assail our world in apocalyptic proportions. It’s like being focused on a broken fingernail during an earthquake. It’s like trying to stop a flood with a sieve—every new solution is so full of holes it only serves to exacerbate the situation. Vanity of vanities!

Those of us who have been paying attention to the words of Our Lady, especially over the past century and a half cannot be surprised at what is transpiring as we have witnessed the wholesale rejection of Christ in contemporary society. Colossians 1: 17 tells us: “(Christ) is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” That, my friends is the key to the matter: In Christ all things hold together, and the more he is rejected, the more things fall apart. What we have sown in rebellion and disobedience, we are reaping in chaos and destruction. Lord have mercy on us, for we have sinned!

However, even in the midst of trials that seem certain to get worse before they get better, there is cause for great hope and joy. We who believe in Christ, believe that there is far more going on than what our senses tell us. We remember that at Calvary, all seemed lost, and even the apostles ran away scared. But a mere three days later—the resurrection! A more glorious outcome than could have ever been dreamed possible! We believe that God is in control now, just as he was then. One significant advantage we have over the apostles is that they endured their trial before Pentecost, while we have already received the gift and gifts of the Holy Spirit.

The Catechism tells us:

The moral life of Christians is sustained by the gifts of the Holy Spirit. These are permanent dispositions which make man docile in following the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

“The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit are wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. They belong in their fullness to Christ, Son of David. They complete and perfect the virtues of those who receive them. They make the faithful docile in readily obeying divine inspirations.

(CCC #1830-31)

The catechism goes on to tell us that the gift of fortitude “ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good.” Fortitude is one gift we will have great need of as the days continue to darken.

As we hear so often, God has not left us orphaned. With the Holy Spirit as our strength and guide, the storms of life may batter us, but our immortal souls will not be harmed as long as we remain in a state of grace, are docile to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, and make use of the extraordinary graces being poured out over us at this time. God has not left us orphaned, but we must accept the graces he offers, especially those he showers on us through the Eucharist.

A recurring theme in the writings of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is the need for the human will to be united with the Divine Will. He taught that peace will only come when we enter into this Communion of Wills. This is something each of us can work towards and by doing so, we accomplish far more than the sum of our paltry efforts. Pope Benedict was familiar with the life and writings of Servant of God, Luisa Piccarreta, whose cause for canonization is currently in process. Jesus teaches us through Luisa how to live always in the Divine Will. The Italian translation of Luisa’s writings have been found by Vatican-appointed theologians to contain no errors in faith or morals. They are complex writings, but Fr. Robert Young (may he rest in peace) has left us a treasure in a series of podcasts found at https://divinewilllife.org/. If you are unfamiliar with the writings of Luisa, please click on “An Introduction to the Divine Will” at the top of that web page. There are 19 podcasts that give a very gentle and solid primer. God be praised!

Let us keep these things in mind as we continue to pray and offer sacrifices for souls and for the coming of the Kingdom. The world is desperately in need of penance, as the angel indicated so strongly at Lourdes and Fatima. May the Holy Spirit grant us the fortitude to fast and pray well according the will of our Father in heaven.

St. Mary and St. Joseph, pray for us. St. Francis, St. Clare, pray for us. All you holy saints and angels, pray for us. All you holy souls in purgatory, pray for us. We need all the help we can get!

Jesus we trust in you. Maranatha!

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Sustaining the weary with a word…

As I was writing this blog post, I heard the shocking news that Notre Dame Basilica in Paris was burning. News reports rightly spoke of the tragic loss of historical treasures, not least the Basilica herself. But even more tragic is the loss of faith in that part of the world. God is calling, louder and louder it seems, and it is always the same call: “Come back to me, my children. Are you weary? Let me sustain you with a word…”

Isaiah 50:4 The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.

Jesus, the Word, knows well our weariness, the weariness that today oppresses us and threatens to crush our spirit.

Think of his weariness in the Garden of Gethsemane. As the weight of the sins of billions of souls crushed him to the point of sweating blood, the word that sustained Jesus in the garden was the one he spoke to the Father in his agony, “Not my will but yours be done.” The word was fiat. At that moment angels came and waited on him to sustain him, for it was not the end of his suffering. That fiat called down the graces he would need to complete his mission.

Indeed, Jesus is a Redeemer who knows our weariness—but infinitely magnified. In his weariness, or perhaps because of it, he went on to embrace the cross and resolutely climb the hill to Calvary bearing in mind the glory that would be his—and ours—if only he would complete his mission. Fiat. His weariness of body and spirit ended with death, but his rising from the dead gave new life and glorious hope to all. He took his weariness to the tomb and left it imprinted on his burial shroud for all to see.

Mary, the Blessed Mother, whom Jesus bequeathed to us, and us to her from the cross, also endured unimaginable sorrow and crushing weariness. When they met face-to-face on the Via Dolorosa, what pain must have been in their eyes. Yet, what love and trust. Wordlessly their hearts beat as one, fiat, fiat, fiat… Here as in every moment of her existence, her will remained chained to the Throne of God.

There is astonishing power in that little word, fiat. It can sustain us in our weariness as it did for Jesus and Mary, but more than that it can propel us forward with new strength, fortitude, courage, and hope. Like a cosmic explosion, it is a word which, united to the divine fiat, dramatically transforms people and changes the trajectory of world events.

The cosmic importance of this little word is expanded upon in great detail in the Lord’s teachings on the Divine Will in the writings of Luisa Piccarreta. In the Easter Vigil Mass we recall how God’s fiat, “Let there be…” set all creation in motion. On Good Friday we hear Jesus re-echo his fiat of redemption in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Word he initially uttered in heaven when the plan of redemption was conceived, first in the Divine Will and then after her fiat, in the womb of the Virgin Mary.

It is almost inconceivable that our salvation hinged on one little word uttered by a humble Hebrew Maiden. Throughout her existence, that word was as constant in her as the beating of her heart, even in the unimaginable agony of her own Calvary.

She is a model of abject trust in the glorious power of God. At our Parish Lenten Mission the priest reminded us that none of the prophecies made at the Presentation of Jesus had been fulfilled by the time he was crucified. No salvation, no light for the Gentiles, no glory for God’s people Israel. Yet, even in the face of that, she trusted. Her heart never ceased to beat out the rhythm, fiat, fiat, fiat…

At the Annunciation, just before she proclaimed the fiat that changed everything, the Angel Gabriel called greeted by her title, “Full of Grace”. Let us then beg her, by virtue of her continuous fiat to obtain from her Son every grace we need in our weariness, that we may navigate in trust the thick darkness that surrounds us, as we wait in joyful hope for the glorious dawn which has been promised.

Jesus is himself the Word who sustains us in our weariness, and the word he gives us is a word that we can utter in any circumstance: “Fiat.”Sometimes it is the only word that makes sense. I think of the few Christian souls remaining in the Holy Land, Bethlehem in particular. When the security perimeter (now a wall) went up in 2002, they were crushed in spirit for a time. But today, even though their situation is still dire, and they remain weary, they are not crushed. Their hope is alive because Jesus Christ is alive.

God is on the march dear friends. It may not look promising at this point, but neither did the crucifixion. He will not lose the battle that now rages for souls, and in the end his triumph will be more glorious than we can imagine.

We have now entered the Garden with Jesus. The passion is upon us. Let us not flee for fear of the wolves. Whatever our weariness, even if we feel crushed in spirit, if we but link ourselves to Christ in his passion, we may anticipate with great joy and hope a glorious day of triumph. Let our fiat be one with his and his Mother’s as we place our unshakable trust in God’s Holy Will, as they did.

Our Lady of Fatima: “In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph.”

Heavenly Father, may Your kingdom come, and Your will be done on earth as in heaven.

 Come Divine Will to reign upon the earth!

Fiat, fiat, fiat…


Prayer suggestions for Holy Week

A few years back I wrote a Way of the Cross for Greater Trust. Please feel free to print, pray, and share it if you wish. (Here it is formatted as a double-sided brochure.)

A very powerful prayer for Holy Week is the 24 Hours of the Passion, as given to Luisa Piccarreta, which has an imprimatur. Praying it in its entirety is ideal, but if that is not possible, consider meditating on part of it on Holy Thursday and Good Friday. God will touch you, guaranteed.

Tears for Bethlehem…

Now as (Saul) was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” (Acts 9:3-5)

Bethlehem haunts me

This past March, I was blessed to be part of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I had heard about the pilgrimage from a friend last fall. At the time I was just getting ready to leave for Medjugorje and was not thinking about another pilgrimage so soon. Still, I felt drawn to it, even though I only knew one person on the pilgrimage and the point of departure was on the other side of the country. I decided to wait until after Christmas to see if there were still spots available. There were. I prayed for a confirmation that I was to go, and I received three. In faith I booked my ticket.

It turned out to have been just the pilgrimage God wanted for me, focused on prayer and Scripture, but also with an emphasis on the “living stones” of the Holy Land, particularly on the current situation of the Christians who live there, both in Israel and Palestine.

As our group of 37 pilgrims, including two priests, followed with awe the hallowed footsteps of Jesus through Nazareth, Galilee, Jericho, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and points in between, we prayerfully pondered the Scripture passages that were set in the places we visited, Nazareth, the River Jordan, Cana, the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum where Jesus called the fishermen, Mount Tabor, the mount of the Transfiguration, Tabgha where the loaves and fishes were multiplied and where Jesus asked Peter three times, “Do you love me,” and many other places. Halfway through the pilgrimage we “set our faces toward Jerusalem”. We celebrated daily Mass in stunning surroundings and were often brought to tears. The rosary came alive in our hands, and since returning, there is a new dimension to the Mass readings. I hope to expand on this in future, but first I feel compelled to tell you why, since coming home, Bethlehem haunts me.

As we traveled, our tour guide informed us of some of the extreme challenges faced by Christians and other Palestinians in the Holy Land. The States of Israel and Palestine have a population of some 10 million people of which the Christian population has dropped to less than 2%, some 180,000 souls. It is a delicate, extremely complex and utterly confusing arrangement, this tenuous co-habitation of the three main Abrahamic religions, along with various other people from around the world, including migrant workers. I am not qualified to explain or make sense of any of it, but I can tell you what I saw with my own eyes and why Bethlehem still haunts me.

The Shock of arriving in Bethlehem

The last five nights of our pilgrimage we stayed in Bethlehem, the holy city where Jesus was born. It is just a few miles from Jerusalem and would be our home base. Along with the other pilgrims on our trip, I was shocked and devastated to learn that Bethlehem is a walled city. It is completely enclosed by a security wall 25 feet high, equipped with security cameras and with watchtowers manned by Israeli armed guards. Everyone, including pilgrims, enters and leaves Bethlehem through manned checkpoints.

Bethlehem wall & security tower

With the initial shock still fresh in our minds, we spent our first day in Bethlehem, visiting holy sites, and celebrating a stunning “Christmas” Mass in a shepherd’s cave. Even though the liturgical calendar told us it was Lent, every day in Bethlehem is Christmas we were told. But as a pilgrim to modern-day Bethlehem I could not help but be deeply disturbed at the current situation of Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim, who live there.

Most of us pilgrims had not been aware that Bethlehem has had a security perimeter since 2002. On Easter Monday of 2002, the Israelis invaded and occupied all the cities of the West Bank, including Bethlehem. Not long afterwards, a security fence went up around Bethlehem, which later became a wall encircling the entire city of over 14,000 Palestinian residents, mostly Muslim and Christian. (Other walled cities include Jericho and Ramallah and of course Gaza, but my story is about Bethlehem where we spent five nights.)

Warning to Israeli citizens entering Bethlehem

The checkpoints through which one passes to get in and out of Bethlehem are heavily manned. Israelis are forbidden to enter by law, and Palestinians need special permission to leave, permission which is rarely granted to anyone whose birthplace is listed as Bethlehem. The walled enclosure has been called an open-air prison, and that is not an exaggeration. I suppose that Jesus himself would not be allowed to leave had he been born in June 2002 or later.

The official unemployment rate in Bethlehem is 29%, the highest rate in Palestine. But that figure likely does not include those no longer looking for work because it’s pointless, or those who are underemployed which is pretty much everyone. The jobs in that city are few, mostly tourism-based, and never full-time. The unofficial estimate is 80% unemployment within the walls of Bethlehem. Those “fortunate” few who are given permission to work outside of Bethlehem are strip-searched at the checkpoint leaving and returning. It can take an hour for them to get through the checkpoint at each end of the day.

I have since read that Bethlehem was originally built on an aquifer that is still one of the main sources of water in Israel. It is deeply ironic that since the Israeli occupation, citizens of Bethlehem are forbidden to dig deeper than 4 feet down, and are forced to truck in water at high prices. Not only are they not provided with water, but neither with electricity. Our tour guide told us that you can tell Palestinian housing all over the Holy Land by the solar panels and water tanks on the roofs. By contrast, Israelis have all the water and electricity they need.

It is the people, the living stones of the Holy Land that haunt me, that cry out for justice. We visited an orphanage, a secondary school, and talked to many local people who asked for prayers and implored us also to “tell people” about their dire situation. We found everyone in Bethlehem to be very friendly and open, even though their situation is tragic. The Israeli narrative is that they are dangerous, and it is dangerous to stay in Bethlehem. We found the opposite to be true.

Palestinian Muslims and Christians do live outside the walled cities, but even they are not supplied with water or electricity and must have cisterns and solar panels installed on their houses if they are lucky enough to be able to afford it. High-paying jobs are routinely denied to Palestinians, and they are never allowed a supervisory role over Israeli workers.

In addition, Israeli settlements encroach daily farther into Palestinian territory. Israeli settlements are communities of apartment units inhabited by Israeli citizens (often from other countries), built predominantly on Palestinian land. There are roughly 100,000 settlers living in the units that surround Bethlehem alone. The Shepherd’s Field itself, having existed on the outskirts of Bethlehem for the past 2000 years, is now being swallowed up by Israeli settlements. It is as if a big hungry giant is devouring Palestinian land and there is nothing they can do about it. Often Palestinians are evicted from their homes and even schools to make way for the settlements. Everything in the giant’s path is destroyed.

Israeli settlements built on Palestinian land

Israelis believe they have an ancestral right to the lands they are occupying in the Palestinian territory. As we all know, the situation is enormously complex, but even if you believe this to be true, does that allow for denying entire populations access to water, electricity and freedom of movement? Does that allow for evicting Palestinian people from their homes so that settlements can be built?

For my part, I am haunted by the persecution being endured by the living stones of the Holy Land. The hallowed memory of my pilgrimage is overshadowed by it and every time I open my mouth to tell people about my pilgrimage, what comes out is the story of how Jesus is still being persecuted today in the people of Bethlehem and other areas of the Holy Land. Our pilgrimage guide deliberately included contact with the living stones of the Holy Land, particularly in Bethlehem, and provided opportunities speak to them and offer what little moral and material support we could. This included staying in Bethlehem for five nights at the splendid Jacir Palace Hotel, which has had to shut down several times over the years for lack of pilgrim traffic. We became aware of what it meant to them to have us there. They were so gracious and kind. It was very humbling.

A community of displaced Bedouins

Our first contact with the living stones was as we traveled from Galilee to Jerusalem. Our tour guide had arranged for us to meet with a group of Muslim Bedouins whose nomadic lifestyle is no longer possible as their territory has been overtaken by Israeli settlements. They now live with their animals in small communities of tin shacks eking out whatever existence they can with their small herds, selling trinkets where possible. They live in extreme poverty. We brought them lightly used shoes and clothing and were humbled by their ardent gratitude. Shoes are very important to nomads, and they wear out quickly in the rocky hills. I thought of the shoes in my closet that are never worn because of a pinch here or there. Those people would be happy for them.

Our next contact with living stones was a visit to a Catholic secondary school in Bethlehem. The school welcomes all Palestinian students, no matter their faith background. The Catholic school provides a quality education for the children who live within the walls. They work towards peace, harmony and respect for all. Unfortunately, the Palestinian children are unlikely to be able to fulfill their career dreams as they may never be allowed to exit the walls of Bethlehem.

Bethlehem does have an excellent university, however (https://www.bethlehem.edu). One person we encountered attended the university and got permission to finish her college education in Jerusalem. However, once she obtained her degree, she was not given permission to find work outside of Bethlehem, and has been unemployed ever since. Her husband is fortunate to have a job, but many educated people live there in poverty or are seriously underemployed.

We arrived at the school on a Friday, a traditional day off for the students and staff as it is a holy day of worship for Muslims. Sunday is also a day off as it is a Christian holy day, but Saturday is not a day off, so the weekend is split. No matter, since they are not allowed to go away for the weekend but must remain inside the walls even then. The students and staff were joyful and came in on their day off to talk to us. The young student I spoke to had aspirations of becoming an electrical engineer like his father and starting his own business. I did not ask if his father was currently working. He spoke with pride and I prayed for his dreams to be fulfilled. He also talked about the possibility of going to Europe on exchange, which he may indeed get permission to do. The danger is that students who get a taste of the outside world often make plans to leave permanently. I couldn’t help but think that might be the reason they get permission to go, so they won’t come back. 

The school staff then offered us refreshments, and the students (including some girls) played a game of basketball in the outdoor courtyard for our enjoyment. I was impressed by the students’ resilience and joy, but I am haunted by them. I am free. They are not.

Later that day, we had a visit from the priest who is with the Secretariat for Christian Educational Institutions for all of Israel and Palestine. He spoke about how they are working for love and peace in the Holy Land by welcoming and serving others in their schools and in their lives, that they do not just coexist as Christians and Muslims, but that they live together as community, as neighbours, and as friends. He asked us to go home and be witnesses, to encourage people to come here to see for themselves. He thanked us for coming to see the living stones of Bethlehem.

In his work, he travels all over the region to the schools, including in Gaza, which is the poorest area of Palestine. There is a great deal of damage from Israeli artillery there, but the Israelis do not allow building materials in and no outside food. It is a desperate situation and they are little able to help themselves. In other walled off areas of Palestine, they have access to outside food and building materials, but they are very expensive. When the priest was asked about their needs, he asked for prayer, donations if possible, and that we would make known the situation among those we can reach.

Since coming home, whenever I have spoken to people about my pilgrimage and the situation in Bethlehem, I am met with shock. How is it that this has been their situation since 2002 and we have not heard about it? I am haunted by that as well.

The tiniest living stones we met were the children at an orphanage in Bethlehem run by an order of Sisters. We brought gently-used clothing, supplies, candy—and bubbles! We spent an hour visiting with the children and blowing bubbles. The Sisters were grateful, the children were happy, and we were deeply moved by the experience. Some of the children had been left there by parents who could not afford to keep them. Again, the injustice of it haunted me.

While hope for the future is hardly possible for any of them, the spirit of the people is not crushed. They hope for and rely on pilgrim traffic to sustain them. We purchased what we could from vendors in Bethlehem, knowing it was likely their only source of income. In one shop, one of the young brothers who ran it asked one of our group members to keep an eye on the place while he went to get his older brother for a price check! Within the walls there is a high degree of trust. Not the narrative you get from the other side of the wall.

Franciscan connection

One ray of hope, dare I say a moment of pride as a lay Franciscan, was when I learned of the importance of the Franciscans in the Holy Land.

The main part of the Jerusalem Cross is made of four (Franciscan) tau crosses joined together. The four small crosses represent the Gospels and the five together represent the five wounds of Jesus.

Franciscans have been there since 1217, the time of St. Francis, when they created in the order the “Province of the Holy Land”. They have been in the Holy Land in one form or another since then. Since 1342 they have been known under the title “Custody of the Holy Land”. They currently occupy Saint Savior Monastery in Jerusalem. Their primary responsibility is safeguarding Christian holy places and making sure the spiritual value of these places is preserved. They welcome pilgrims and maintain the shrines, basilicas, and churches in the Holy Land.

We had a presentation from one of the Franciscans in Jerusalem and he told us what a delicate diplomatic balancing act it is to have so many religions and even various Christian sects as actors in the preservation of the holy places. Very often at meetings, nothing gets decided, so nothing gets done. Changes come slowly if at all. He mentioned that in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre a ladder is brought out each Lent and placed where it was once used to light candles—right in the path of pilgrims entering and leaving the building. It is no longer needed because electricity was installed a long time ago. However, the ladder comes out every Ash Wednesday anyway and must be gone around by the thousands entering and leaving. Apparently, there are more important things to talk about at meetings than useless ladders!

Given the Franciscans’ long service, and their knowledge of the inner workings of the Holy Land machinery, we owe them a great debt of gratitude, and an abundance of prayers for their continued presence. God is working miracles through them that we will never know about.

What can be done?

I grieve for Bethlehem. I have had difficulty writing and talking about my pilgrimage to the Holy Land because when I open my mouth to speak, my words are haunted by the living stones. They are crying out for justice and I feel called to give them a voice.

I have also been haunted by the words addressed to Saul of Tarsus in the Acts excerpt at the beginning of this article: “Why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” May God intercede with the same blinding miracle of conversion for those who are persecuting the living stones of the Holy Land.

If you too are haunted by the plight of our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land, there are ways to help. First of all, pray and offer sacrifices and especially the Mass for them. The Holy Land is bleeding Christians, now down to 2% of the population. If the situation does not change, what will keep the few remaining Christians there? Would you stay if you were in their situation? Please pray for those who are sacrificing so much to keep the Christian presence alive in the Holy Land.

Second, educate yourself and others, and write to your federal representative urging them to ensure that the basic human rights of Palestinian citizens are respected and protected.

Third, donate to the Good Friday collection in support of the Holy Land, either through the parish or at https://www.custodia.org/en. The Catholic Near East Welfare Association www.cnewa.org  also has projects that include support for foreign workers in Israel and the poor in Palestine. You can also support students directly through the University of Bethlehem https://www.bethlehem.edu/.

Above all, if you can, pay a visit to the living stones of the Holy Land to support and encourage them, to let them know they are not forgotten in the world. Join or arrange a church pilgrimage, but try to use Christian agencies. And don’t be afraid to stay in Bethlehem. The birthplace of Jesus is full of beautiful souls. They will do everything in their power to serve you joyfully. Their hospitality is limited only by the limitations they are under. Dare to enter into their passion as Simon of Cyrene did for Jesus.

Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, we pray for the Holy Land, for peace that comes from hearts filled with love, for justice that flows from the heart of God, and for strength and courage for those who are bearing the cross of injustice.

St. Paul, pray with us, that the peace of Christ, beyond all understanding will fill the hearts of all.

Shalom.

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!

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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