Another shooting. When I first heard of the horrible shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, I shook my head and decided to numb myself by turning away from the news.
But the [heart]breaking story was too widely reported for me to completely shut out. Still, I could cope. To me, it was an anonymous tragedy. Like Las Vegas and Orlando and Newtown and too many other places.
It was anonymous until I found out through email that my friend and colleague Cherryl, retired from the Archdiocese of San Antonio, lost her sister-in-law Therese and brother-in-law Richard in the church. Cherryl shared, “It’s been one long panic attack since Sunday and my brain can’t seem to stop looping everything.”
There were many images of the tragedy online and on TV, including the first funerals of the 26 victims… those of Therese and Richard. There were even images of the couple. But none of them captured my attention and touched my heart until I heard that they were part of my friend’s family. In a strange and mysterious… and now emotionally loaded… way, they have become part of my family too. Cherryl wrote on Facebook, “[Therese] and Richard were so much in love with each other. They did everything together and clearly enjoyed each other’s company.” Besides the obvious prompting to pray for the Sutherland Springs community and to renew my own pursuit of non-violence, her post called me to reflect on my own spousal relationship… do we enjoy each other’s company so much that others would notice? Do we savor our moments even more now that we’re reminded how fragile life can be? Will I make a conscious choice to love my spouse no matter what challenges face us, challenges that pale in comparison with the last moments of Therese and Richard?
All of a sudden, an anonymous tragedy in another state became an event that has deepened my perspective on life and love.
All because someone put a face on a very sad story that I wanted to ignore.
The first snowfall was right outside my window and I was sitting in my house weighing my options. I had obligations, both to God and to my family on this particular day.
All Saints’ Day tends to be one of my favorite Holy Days and it’s like one of those “Amen” kind of Catholic days. The day where I call to mind all of these amazing and holy men and women who have ran the race and finished well. These holy souls who I call friend, intercessor, confidant and role model.
But this day, I had kids with schedules and commitments, so that meant the handful of Mass options in the area could realistically only come down to one for us. It also meant, like it does on most Holy Days, that I take a shift with all the kids while my husband takes a pew on his own at a different Mass option. The snow was making the little ones even more excitable as they watched it out the window and it was making me more frustrated. I didn’t have time for this! How inconvenient of the weather to ruin my All Saints day.
I readjusted my tarnished halo, bundled up the kids and prayed a prayer for safety as we headed out on the road for the fifteen mile drive to church. The roads were far from ideal and I ended up tailing a truck with a cattle trailer the entire drive. It didn’t matter. I wasn’t going to speed today any way. (Bless me Father for I have sinned, I may have in the past.) I tried to refocus my heart while feeling anxiety creep in my chest. Scurrying about from home to church, back home again and then in the opposite direction to another activity wasn’t really how I’d wanted to spend my day. We parked in the lot and were accompanied by others who were rushing in to Noon Mass over their lunch time, along with many members of the older generation. We were greeted by the kindly gentlemen ushers as I scanned the seating arrangements. Of course, the good hearted Catholics took up most of the back half of church, allowing no room for a weary mom with five kids to slide in and remain anonymous. I decided that was fine and, after arriving to church with minutes to spare, I most certainly deserved a place in the front third of the church. I settled in and calmed myself as I prepared for Mass to begin. I allowed myself to familiarize myself again with the unsurpassed beauty of this particular church. As the choir sang the Gloria, God nudged me a little reminding me that all of this is why I love my faith, love our rich traditions and respect such things as obligations of Holy Days.
God also allowed for opportunities to grow in my own humility and saintly endeavors during that Mass as the toddler threw his pacifier past the lady on the other end of our pew and into the abyss of the side aisle. Or when the toddler also figured out that the thick rope that held the kneeler also could be played much like a banjo. I tried not to let them bother me while pretending to be Super Mom as the Keeper of the Pew. If only they all knew that secretly in my mind I was certain that my wish to remain inconspicuous during one Mass was once again too lofty a saintly goal. I pressed on, determined to call on the saints and angels to give me peace and serenity in that moment. After all, I had gotten us all to Mass safely and on time and I knew that one way or another God would bless it. The final blessing had come and the final hymn had been sung. We began putting on the winter coats and hats to leave church. I felt an inner sigh regretting that it just didn’t feel as special this time around. I suddenly heard a voice from the gentleman in the pew behind us. I turned, ready to defend, but stopped short.
The man smiled a broad smile, leaned in and said, “You’re doing a marvelous job”.
I smiled back, held back the tears and nearly hugged the sweet older man. He had no idea that on that day my motherly confidence was lacking and, while I was being a dutiful mom and Catholic, I felt anything but saintly.
Never doubt the impact of your simple words to that person in the pew in front of you, the smile you send across the room or the promptings telling you to reach out to someone today. You just may be the saint on earth modeling those in heaven, by just one gesture or word. Choose to make that look and those words ones of encouragement to build up the kingdom of God.
Austen Ivereigh, a biographer of Pope Francis (The Great Reformer), commented on a recent interview with the pope by an Argentinian reporter. Addressing the area of greatest need for growth in the Church, Pope Francis said, it is in “pastoral conversion. It is still very much halfway there” (“Relaxed pope muses on Latin America…” Crux).
Ivereigh went on to define pastoral conversion as “a move from maintenance to mission, and a pastoral focus on concrete people and their needs rather than taking refuge in abstraction and legalism” (Ibid).
In his apostolic exhortation Evanglii Gaudium, Pope Francis speaks of pastoral conversion in the strongest possible language. “I dream of a ‘missionary option’, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation. The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion can only be understood in this light: as part of an effort to make them more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with himself” (27).
Pastoral conversion is a call to the Church to place the proclamation of the Gospel over and above maintaining our structures and defending the status quo. Pastoral conversion is about finding ways to include people and to implore the Holy Spirit to help us extend the grace of the Gospel to those most in need of that grace.
More concretely, and in our context, this means looking for ways to include people whose lives have fallen short of the Church’s teachings rather than simply reminding them how they have fallen short. Instead of simply repeating doctrines that we all know, striving to find ways to make living the Gospel message of the God who comes to us while we are yet sinners (Romans 5:8).
Pastoral conversion is about a willingness to let go of church buildings that served the past so as to form vital and living communities of disciples for today. It is about an openness to being misunderstood and taken advantage of—getting a little dirty as Pope Francis says—in order to walk with those who are far from God and yet searching for life and healing.
Pastoral conversion is about making space for the other, who in an age of massive emigration is often very different from us. Instead of asking what do I get out of this, seeking ways to give others what I have. Such an approach calls us to set aside defensiveness and any semblance of protectionism so we might encounter one another.
Pastoral conversion, in short, is about asking and acting on how best to share and extend Gospel grace to others, especially those on the margins of such grace. It is risky and will entail getting bruised from time to time. More importantly, it will mean the Gospel, which for many has become old news, will be made for some good news again!
I love raspberries! And, it brings me joy to be able to pick the deep-red gems in my own backyard. I try to pick the precious little jewels almost daily during the growing season and choose only those that are fully ripe and delightfully sweet. Of course that puts me in competition with bees, birds and Asian lady beetles that prefer their raspberries plump and juicy, too. That’s OK — I don’t mind sharing a few with them. Mother Nature makes sure that there is an abundant harvest.
I have been raising the Autumn Bliss variety since 2009 and can vouch that this fall-fruiting plant lives up to its enchanting name. The canes start bearing large, delicious raspberries in August and continue until Jack Frost pays us a visit.
Recently, Wendy Gessell, who works in the Office of Marriage and Family at the Pastoral Center, baked a scrumptious dessert with some of the Autumn Bliss berries she and her husband, Steve, grow. I can only say that sampling Wendy’s Raspberry Ribbon Pie took me straight to “pie paradise”!
Raspberry Ribbon Pie
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp. salt
6 tbsp. vegetable shortening
2 1/2 tbsp. very cold water
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1 tbsp. vanilla instant pudding mix
6 oz. cream cheese, softened
1/4 cup confectioner’s sugar
Dash of salt
4 cups raspberries, divided
1 cup water, divided
1/2 cup sugar
6 tbsp. cornstarch
Preheat oven to 475°F.
Combine flour and salt in a large bowl. Cut in shortening with a pastry blender until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Stir in the water until the mixture the forms a ball. Roll the dough on a floured surface and fit into a nine-inch pie pan. Flute the edges as desired. Prick bottom and side of pastry thoroughly with fork. Bake 8 to 10 minutes or until light brown — cool on wire rack.
In a large bowl, whip the cream and add the vanilla pudding mix. In a second bowl, beat the cream cheese, sugar and salt until smooth. Fold the cream cheese mixture into the whipped cream. Spread half into pie shell. Chill for 30 minutes.
Set one cup of raspberries aside and crush the other three cups. Put the crushed raspberries and 2/3 cup water into a saucepan and cook over medium heat. Bring to a simmer and cook until raspberries are soft. Mix together the sugar, cornstarch and remaining water and add to the raspberry filling. Cook until this glaze thickens. Cool to room temperature.
Carefully spoon half of the glaze mixture over the cream cheese layer. Chill until set — about 30 minutes. Set aside the other half of the glaze mixture, keeping it at room temperature.
Spread the last of the cream cheese mixture over top of pie, taking care not to disturb the glaze layer beneath it. Chill for 30 minutes. Top with the rest of the glaze. Gently place each of the remaining raspberries over the top of the pie. Chill until firm.
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Notes from Wendy:
I found the original recipe for this tasty treat in a “Taste of Home” magazine several years ago and have been tweaking it ever since.
The piecrust recipe is one I have used for several years — it almost never fails. (Double it to make crusts for two pies.)
I prefer to use butter-flavored Crisco® in my piecrusts.
Occasionally, I have made this pie without the cream cheese layer. When I prepare it that way, adding a dollop of real whipped cream or ice cream takes it “over the top.”
I use this recipe for strawberry pie, too. It’s equally delicious. We’ve raised our own Honeoye strawberries for years — it’s a dessert we look forward to in June when the berries start appearing.
A note from Carol:
Wendy’s husband, Steve Gessell, is the maintenance worker for properties of the St. Cloud Diocese. Brilliant when it comes to growing just about anything, he formerly worked (for 10 seasons) as the rose gardener at the spectacular Clemens Rose Garden in St. Cloud. Steve spent 16 years developing the Honeybelle Honeysuckle Vine, which was introduced to the market in 2009. He’s the one who recommended the Autumn Bliss raspberries to me. (Thanks, Steve!). The Gessells are members of St. Mary’s Cathedral.
I found myself rather unprepared to flip the calendar to October. I’m not really sure why it came as a surprise, but my September came and went in such a flurry. I suspect that the part of me who loves to relish in the beauty and serenity of crisp fall mornings and brightly displayed foliage, finds October to be bittersweet. While it does happen to hold my birthday, it also brings about the return of earlier evening darkness and more gray days that come along with it. I find myself with thoughts of Christmas gift planning and how to strive toward a more meaningful Advent already coming to the forefront of my mind, even before the dreaded white stuff flies. I guess I’m a glass half empty sort of gal come autumn. The carefree me wants to hold tightly to the days of summer gone by, missed opportunities and bucket list things we just didn’t get around to this year. The practical side of me says that all these things pass and as the leaves turn and drop, there will also be good times to warm ourselves indoors and reconnect as a family again.
This year I’ve found myself ever more aware of harvest and the weather for farmers. While I am not a farmer myself, we live in an area where large farms are the norm and their operations are enormous. What hard work and endless hours they toil and labor! I’m not sure I’ve ever appreciated and marveled at their commitment and tenacity as I have lately. On the blustery days while I’ve sat inside tending to my tasks, they are dodging rain days and missing out on some of their own precious family time. The massive tractors, combines and semis that pass by provide a constant flow of loud traffic by our home these days. Everywhere I drive in our area, another field is being turned over, beans and corn harvested and day or night, equipment is making its path.
While I sat with the weekend before me, I was overwhelmed by my own harvesting and labor yet to be done. There are apples to be turned into applesauce and canned pie filling, many gallons of frozen tomatoes that I stockpiled during picking await becoming spaghetti sauce, soup and tomato sauce and the squash needs to be baked, scooped and frozen. Thankfully, the potatoes sit in the corner of the garage just waiting for consumption and don’t need any immediate attention. I needed to stop myself for a moment and thank God for His bounty this year. Although my garden did seem to lack in the thriving department based on seven mouths to feed, I at least had the land, time and knowledge to grow a garden. Maybe the harvest wasn’t in abundance, but it will be a welcome gift during the winter months when I can go to my freezer or canning cupboard and pull out something that God helped me to grow.
When I actually stopped to think about all of this goodness and thank God for it, despite its potential failure, a small piece of perspective gave me a clearer view. If I consider the hard work of the farmer, rather than details like how the soybean harvest leads to an influx of lady beetles in my home, I find a different view that sees the hard work of the landowner. I come to recognize better that my work is not my own. My work is His work. Together, we share in this labor of love, but we all most likely benefit from it as well.
So, the other day I had the opportunity to spend a couple of hours with my brother who is somewhat home-bound while his wife went out to do some needed errands.
We just hung out for a while but since it was a beautiful sunshiny day we decided to go out for a walk. Now my brother is in a wheelchair so I would need to push him along our way. As a chaplain in a nursing home I have actually become quite adept at handling wheelchairs but always on a smooth and flat surface.
My bro wanted to show me a path along which some deer come out to graze on the lush grass near a wooded area. The path is paved and travels slightly downhill to the area we wanted to see. So getting there was fairly simple and the pushing easy. Well, the way back up was not so easy. It was work. The path seemed a lot steeper going up as I recalled going down.There appeared to be more cracks and holes in the asphalt on the uphill climb. I also realized at that point that my brother’s weight was about the same as mine. Not light. My brother has lost some of his ability to speak clearly and so was quiet most of the way. I was pretty quiet too except for my panting and gasping, and breathing hard. In the silence, I recalled a recent homily given by Father Leroy Maus at one of the local care centers in which he referred to the priest who founded Boy’s Town; Father Flanagan.
Some of you more seasoned readers may recall a movie way back when by the same name: Boy’s Town. It starred Spencer Tracy as Father Flanagan and Mickey Rooney as an orphaned teenager who was kind of a trouble maker. Boy’s Town was established as a home/school for young lads who had no one who cared for or about them. Father Flanagan coined a phrase to portray the purpose of the academy that has been written into a song and performed by many artists over the years; the Hollies in 1969, Neil Diamond in the 70’s and many others since then. The phrase is: “He ain’t heavy; he’s my brother!” Here’s an excerpt from the song, (google the title for the full lyrics):
The road is long
With many a winding turn
That leads us to who knows where
Who knows where? But I’m strong
Strong enough to carry him
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother
So on we go
His welfare is of my concern
No burden is he, to bear
We’ll get there
For I know
He would not encumber me
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother
If I’m laden at all
I’m laden with sadness
That everyone’s heart
Isn’t filled with the gladness
Of love for one another
I recently found a recording of the song online and after listening to it realized thatyes, I am my brother’s keeper and you know what?He ain’t heavy.
Matthew 6: 19-21 “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon the earth, where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break through and steal: but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth consume, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: for where thy treasure is, there will thy heart be also.
I helped a friend clean her attic recently. I have spent time reflecting about it since. I know, most people want to finish such a project and put it behind them. The dust…the spider webs…and other creatures you realize may be joining you (though unseen). However, in recent months I have found myself thinking about our life’s journeys. We each have a different one and we each choose to live it uniquely and, hopefully, authentically. How do we do that? Well, I am not a picture person. There is little physical evidence on this earth I exist, particularly if you judge existence by the number of photos you appear in or possessions you own. Does this lack indicate a life wasted or, at a minimum, insufficiently documented?
I saw a quote recently from Louie CK. While not the most appropriate man to quote for a Catholic blog, I appreciated his sentiment. “I don’t like taking pictures with people… It doesn’t feel normal,” CK explained about people’s need to take a selfie with him rather than have an actual conversation. “I always shake their hand and ask their name because everybody is interesting.” Imagine that, he wants to use that brief encounter, just for a moment, to learn about a stranger.
Treasuring a moment should be about closing your eyes, remembering a smell or a sound or a touch. I think we need to find a way to enjoy things beyond literal societal requirements. Observe. Let some things happen, pass, and then reflect. For instance, when you attended the state fair, would you smile at your selfie in front of the Sweet Aunt Martha’s cookie stand or do you remember the taste of the cookies? I am too skeptical for pictures. I see smiles, but I think about what is going on inside. Worries, hopes, ambitions, anxieties, love, hate, joy, sorrow, disappointment, satisfaction, anguish, anger, gratitude. Who are they really? Where do they wish they really were? I want a conversation; I want to hear your feelings. Describe it to me in words so I can feel your emotions; let’s talk.
Why does this have to do with the attic and my friend? There was a lot of “stuff.” To most, much of it would appear to be of little value or consequence. However, with each box there was a new story – Christmas gifts of long ago- some close to 70 years old, an assortment of practical jokes (definitely inappropriate for Catholic blog), retirement gifts marking a well-earned completion of a career, worn back braces from a severe injury. It was fun, almost a game – what used to be in this empty box? Where did it come from; on what occasion; who gave it; and most importantly, what did you feel about it. We built upon the stories as the day went on. Little pieces, little insights. Her son was able to hear about his mom’s childhood and touch and experience the same toys she played with as a child. She was a person, with feelings, memories and stories, not just “mom.” She joked that we were preparing for an estate sale for someone not dead yet. With that her son stopped her and pointed out that without her narrative, without her voice, all of the “stuff” would not have meaning. Now some of it seems priceless. It is the power of her story that gives it value.
At a certain age we start to think about how a particular day, interaction, experience becomes part of the great story of our life, rather than just another day. Who or what will tell our story? Will people wish there would be one more conversation, one more hug, or one more letter or card? (yes, handwritten, with an actual stamp!) One of the coolest treasures we found was a get-well poster with notes from friends and family that was from a surgery over 30 years ago. Seeing familiar names, remembering forgotten faces. Actually hand-made, handwritten (in cursive even!)
The quest for literal documentation is not new. Remember Thomas in the Gospel. In today’s world, Doubting Thomas would have demanded a picture. In the story of Martha and Mary (the sisters) in Luke 10:39-40, “Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving.” I am pretty sure Martha would have had a camera. Maybe we should be like Mary (his mother) who “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” Luke 2:19.
“I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.” -2 Timothy 4:7
As I type this blog, my muscles ache and my toes hurt, but it is all worth it because I completed my first ever 10-mile race! A big run like this has been on my bucket list for quite some time, but I was not sure if I would ever accomplish it. I am the furthest thing from a runner but I wanted to prove to myself that I was capable of doing it.
I started this 10-mile run with thousands of other people- young and old- at a little after 7 in the morning in the pouring rain and with the sun just starting to make an appearance. It would have been incredibly easy to have thrown in the towel right off the bat. Really? Rain? It was only barely above 50 degrees. But the support from the fellow runners and the spectators was something I will never forget!
The first 4 miles were easier than I ever could have imagined. I had never run 4 miles straight in training and I doubt I could do it again right now, but as a group it didn’t seem like quite as big of an obstacle.
The whole run I thought about how a race such as this is so similar to our journey in life. There are hills- some that seem too high to climb- and maybe we can’t sprint but have to walk it. There are obstacles that try to shift our focus, toes and muscles that hurt, or unexpected downpours. Finally, there is always the devil putting thoughts into our heads like “I can’t do this” or “it’s too far” or “I am only halfway?”
The 9th and 10th miles were the hardest for me. My muscles were so stiff and my whole body was exhausted. There were extra fans cheering us along this part of the race. There were people with funny signs that got us all laughing, and kids that were dressed up giving everyone high fives and yelling “keep running, you’ve got this!”
At times I did not have the energy to run like I did the first couple miles, but I knew I had to keep moving, so I would walk as quickly as I could until I could run again. I think this is exactly how we have to take life- when we think the obstacle we face is too steep to climb, sometimes we have to take a slower pace so that we have the strength to make it to the top, because each and every obstacle we are faced with can be conquered.
My challenge for each of you is to create the best possible support system to run this race with, and when you see others struggling up the hills of life to cheer them on and run it with them. You may never know how much strength a simple smile or high-five can give someone who may be contemplating giving up.
Reflecting on Jesus’ statement that the members of his family are “those who hear the word of God and act on it,” Pope Francis invited his listeners to reflect on the concept of familiarity.
To gain such familiarity one must be willing to enter “into the home of Jesus, to enter into that atmosphere…those who reside in the house of the Lord are free, those who have a familiar relationship with Him are free.”
Gaining familiarity with Jesus “also means standing with Him, looking to Him, hearing His Word, seeking to do it, speaking to Him.” Pope Francis makes clear that speaking to Jesus is to have a prayer life marked by a common language, an easy back and forth.
Finally, according to Pope Francis, familiarity with Jesus is gained by remaining “in the presence of Jesus, as He Himself counsels us at the Last Supper.” How much this reminds us that faithful, Sunday by Sunday, celebrating the Mass in remembrance of Jesus is a sure way to gain familiarity with the personality of Jesus.
Jesus desires a familiar relationship with each one of us. Such a familiarity is gained by spending time with him in daily prayer, reading the gospels, faithfulness to Mass, and being in the company of his friends, especially the poor and vulnerable.
How familiar am I with Jesus? Am I comfortable in his presence? Draw near to him who desires to be near to you!
(This reflection is based on Pope Francis’ homily for Tuesday, September 26, 2017).