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Friday, June 29, 2018

IRELAND: Empty Churches, Hurting People - What Can We Do?

As Ireland prepares for an August visit by Pope Francis, her people are locked in a life and death struggle with the Catholic Church. In a country that is perhaps the most Catholic of any nation in the world, some estimates show that while well over 90% of Ireland's citizens identify with the church of Rome, only 18 percent of them attend Sunday Mass, down from nearly 90 percent just 30 years ago. Scandals involving priests, orphans, and lately, the abortion vote have created an environment that is openly hostile toward centuries of tradition.

St. John's Lane - Dublin, Ireland 

In June, I attended Sunday Mass at John's Lane Catholic Church in Dublin, Ireland, an awesomely beautiful church built beginning in 1867 for what was clearly a large and vibrant community. On this day, during the first of two scheduled Masses, there were perhaps 30 people in the pews. The elderly priest was alone on the altar. He lit the candles, then started service. There were no readers, no altar servers, no lectors, no music. The homily on this Sunday was of overcoming Church scandals that have rocked Ireland in recent years. The priest didn't make excuses for the faults of the clergy. Instead, he talked of healing. But his message was heard by so few. I was heartbroken for him, for the congregation, and for Ireland.

I was unable to get that empty church out of my mind and finally shared the story with Fr. John Riley, chaplain for the Augustine Institute in Denver. His response brought me some comfort. "Ireland has not been properly catechized," he said. He went on to explain that the people in Ireland were taught to follow rules, but were not made to see the overwhelming love and goodness of God. So when those who made the rules broke them, the people lost faith in the institution. Yet, Fr. Riley said, all is not lost. "God is getting people ready for the new evangelization," he said. He shared an article that he recently wrote on this very topic:

Tough times!  Scandals in the Church. A society consumed with greed and a shameless pursuit of money and material prosperity.  Many sincere Catholics demoralized and falling away.  On the political scene, chaos…confusion…disgraceful ambition, factions, and incessant fighting.  And looming in the East, the threat of Radical Islam.  Certainly “the worst of times”… 

He was referring to the 13th Century, in the days when Saints Dominic and Francis of Assisi began their evangelizing ministries that would radically change the way the Church operated and the way the faithful worshiped. Fr. Riley pointed out that the Church has seen scandals throughout its history because it is peopled by the fallen. In other words, all of us. Yet it has survived and grown steadily in spite of its flawed human members, just as it did during the days of Dominic and Francis, through the grace of the Holy Spirit and the will of God.

"Within a single generation of Francis and Dominic’s embarking on their respective
'adventures' the tide had turned," writes Fr. Riley. Now it's up to today's practicing Catholics to figure out how to evangelize those who have fallen away - how to witness to their brothers and sisters through their own behaviors while healing those who have been hurt. The need for God is written on the human heart. The key is to make sure our own home churches are welcoming as the body of Christ through the Eucharist. 

Making Churches Welcoming

In the United States, more and more churches are instituting Welcome Tables and New Parishioner Welcome Receptions to help embrace those interested in growing in their Catholic faith or in joining a Catholic parish community.
"It takes 10 times more effort to make a new customer than to keep the current one," says Catholic marketing consultant and lay evangelist, Gail Coniglio. She says, "Keeping the Catholics in the pews Catholic is really the essence of the New Evangelization. Catechizing the baptized." Coniglio leads the Welcome Table ministry at her church. This is one of the reasons why she has teamed up with popular EWTN Catholic television radio host, Teresa Tomeo, to begin Beyond Sunday: Becoming a 24/7 Catholica new parish evangelization movement that is just starting to sweep across America. Beyond Sunday offers a book and study, video series, and parish mission to help not only reach the average Catholic in the pew, but "Chreasters" - those Catholics who attend Mass only on Christmas and Easter. The idea is that if more Catholics (and priests) were living out their faith seven days a week and actively growing in their relationship with Christ, it would change not only Ireland, but the world. Churches would be packed and Catholics would want to receive Jesus in the Eucharist more often. Pope Francis' upcoming visit to Ireland is a reason for hope and an opportunity to draw many back to church.
Let us pray for the Holy Father with this prayer of St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, and ask him to intercede for us to become instruments of the New Evangelization in this hurting world.  

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Why Do the Dying Reach Toward Heaven?

I was just settling into bed when my phone rang. I was tempted to ignore it because I was already warm and comfortable, but I thought what many people think when the phone rings at night. Perhaps it's an emergency. It was my dear friend, Deb, in tears, telling me that her mother, Maggie, had just died. It was unexpected. Her mom had been in rehab, improving after having suffered a mild stroke.
Three weeks earlier, just before Easter, Deb had received a call from her sister that “Mom was acting strangely,” and so she left work to go find out what the problem was. When she arrived, her mother was frantically putting things in the oven. Things like paper plates and plastic cups, cutlery, half-eaten pieces of toast, canned goods. Deb kept asking, “Mom, what are you doing? You can’t be doing this!” Her mother just looked at her, then kept filling the oven. Finally, Deb realized that her mother didn’t answer because she couldn’t. She’d lost her ability to speak and she was clearly confused.
At the hospital, though, Maggie started coming back to herself almost right away. Her brain was already healing. For instance, she was irritated because she had to remain in the E.R. while a hospital room was arranged for her, and she missed her supper. When that room was ready, she was already starting to speak. When Deb asked where she was she said she was "in the pasta mobile" instead of the hospital, but they were actual words. And within hours, when the nurses asked her if she recognized her daughter her response was, “Of course I do," in that no-nonsense way she had.
       This was a woman I'd known for most of my life. She was an important part of my childhood.  She was a Kool-Aid mom, the one the neighborhood kids knew would provide a safe harbor and a snack on a summer afternoon. She fed me comfort food when I was in junior high, a time when I desperately needed comfort. She was the woman who would brush the hair back from my teenage face, asking me why I wanted to hide. She was loving and always motherly, although I'm told she did get irritated when, at the age of 12, I pierced Deb's ears using a darning needle and ice cubes. But most of the time her eyes twinkled with good humor and that twinkle was back very quickly after her stroke. Within a few days, Maggie was transferred to St. Gabriel’s for rehab, and quickly became a favorite with the staff. She was a tiny woman. She weighed less than 80 pounds with her shoes on. But her love, her determination and her smile were huge. I’m told the staff actually fought over who would care for her. She was making good progress. She was 97 years old, yet, before the stroke, she still lived alone in her own home. And there was talk of her returning there when she had gained a little weight.
      On April 19th she had a good day. She went down to dinner, ate well, chatted with people around her and then went upstairs with a CNA, a lovely, caring individual who helped her get ready for bed. They were chatting about the day, what they’d done, who had visited, what they’d said. All of a sudden, Maggie looked up at the ceiling, smiled, reached up her hands…and said, “Oh!” And she was gone. The nurse who was with her was absolutely convinced that she saw somebody; somebody she was very happy to see.
      I speak often on death and near-death experiences and Maggie's experience is more common than you may think. We can't know whom she saw, but it was clear from the look on her face that it was a welcome surprise. 
      The idea of seeing people I've loved and missed is more than comforting to me. It's exciting. And it's proof to me that love never dies and Heaven is real. 

Monica Hannan is a three-time Emmy-award-winning television journalist and Catholic Press Association-honored author. Her latest book, Gift of Death-A Message of Comfort and Hope is available on Amazon.com. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Hope in Times of Violence: Loved Ones are Closer Than We Think

Hope in Times of Violence: Loved Ones We've Lost are Closer Than We Think

Pick up the paper or turn on the TV, and we hear of another mass shooting. It seems as if some Americans are steeped in rage, and we look on in horror. What can we do? How can we help? Our initial reaction may be to pray for those in mourning and hope that  it never happens to our family and friends. As a nation, we fly our flags at half staff, and we grieve together. But we all experience grief differently.

I recently spoke at a meeting for people learning to deal with grief and loss and people shared stories of what they believed were signs they had received from loved ones who were trying to comfort them from beyond. There was the man who talked of his wife visiting him every night as he was ready to drop off to sleep. Sometimes it was dreamlike, but other times, he said, he could actually feel the bed dip down as she sat on it. He said they simply talked about his day or concerns he had.

A woman told the group about her son's love for red chiles and said that since his death she was seeing these red chiles in unexpected places. Another talked about her devastation after her son died by suicide. She says at the funeral service she looked up and for just a moment, saw him sitting in the rafters, swinging his legs and smiling down at her.

Finally, after a half a dozen similar stories, a man who had been sitting quietly started to talk. "We've heard five or six stories tonight from people who have received signs from beyond, and I suspect there are many more because I have one that I've never talked about." He went on to explain that after his wife died he was devastated, and unable to get past his grief. It was there day and night, and he couldn't function. He even sought counseling in an attempt to move forward. And then, one day, he woke up and found that he felt happy for the first time since her death, for no reason that he could fathom. His sense of grief was gone. It occurred to him that the reason he suddenly felt better was that he sensed that his wife was there with him.

"I can't explain how I knew, because I couldn't see her or hear her. Not with my ears. But I felt  her there and it was enough."

Not long afterward, he received the news that their daughter was seriously ill, and he was very afraid for her. He didn't know if he could handle another loss. Worst of all, his wife suddenly gone again. He could no longer feel her presence.

"I thought, 'Why now? Why when I need you the most do you leave me alone again?'"

Before he had a chance to slip back into depression, though, his daughter came to him with a look of wonder on her face. "Dad!" she said. "You'll never believe it. Mom is visiting me!" His daughter's experience was a little different because she had moments when she could actually see her mother, and talk to her. The man was at peace again because he knew that his wife hadn't deserted him. She was going where she was needed most.

Why Not Me? Why Do Some Receive Messages and Others Do Not?

It's impossible to say why some people have these experiences and the comfort they bring, while others do not. But that doesn't make them any less real. There are some things we simply can't understand, and some things we just have to wait for. I fall back on scripture:

No eye has ever seen or no ear has ever heard or no mind has ever thought of the wonderful things God has made ready for those who love him. - 1 Corinthians 2:9 NIV

The one lesson I've learned from the hundreds of stories I've heard is that our deceased loved ones...and heaven...are closer than we think and give us hope, even in the midst of violence. If you have a story of hope in a time of grief, I encourage you to share it. It may just bring comfort to those in mourning.

Monica Hannan is a journalist and author. Her latest book,
Gift of Death-A Message of Comfort and Hope is available on Amazon.com. 

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Heartbreak, Suicide and God's Endless Mercy

God's Mercy is For Everyone

Frequently, when I speak to groups about death and dying, people will share their own stories of loss. At a recent event, a woman came up to me with tears running down her face, to talk about her daughter who had died by suicide. She had been raised as a Catholic, with the idea that those who kill themselves are committing a mortal sin, and therefore are forever separated from the love of God. Because of this, she'd stopped going to church. She said she couldn't believe that a good God would condemn her beautiful daughter for a pain she couldn't stop. In the course of the conversation, it became clear to me that her daughter had been suffering from unremitting depression and had sought treatment, but had never found peace.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church  is clear in what the Church teaches about this. It says in paragraphs 2282-2283, "Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide. We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to Him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives." 

Somehow, this teaching has not always been made clear or been accepted, even by various clergy, and unfortunately, condemnation has sometimes taken the place of compassion and hope. This would compound a family's pain by suggesting that a loved one who commits suicide is in hell, but this has never been a church teaching. The Church has never said that anybody is in hell, even those whom history has held up as demonstrably evil. The Church's aim in its teaching is to protect the sanctity of every life, from natural conception to natural death. But surely God would not punish someone for a chemical imbalance that they couldn't help or control. To commit a mortal sin is to do so very deliberately, knowing that the sin is grave, that their actions will cut them off from God, and not caring, (CCC 1859). Padre Pio has said that this is rarely the case:

St. Padre Pio

"I believe that not a great number of souls go to hell. God loves us so much. 
He formed us at his image. God loves us beyond understanding.
And it is my belief that when we have passed from consciousness of the world, when we appear to be dead, God, before He judges us, will give us a chance to see and understand what sin really is.
And if we understand it properly, how can we fail to repent?"
-St. Padre Pio

"We have to understand that we are made to live," says Fr. Russ Kovash, Pastor of St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Williston, N.D. "If you are in an accident, when it's over your heart is pounding, and that's because we cling to life. If someone clearly doesn't want life, there's something in them that is not wired right." So for that person, God's mercy would show all the more. "The mercy of God is something we can't even fathom," Fr. Kovash adds. "It's a travesty to think  that someone is unforgivable or that someone's sin is bigger than the mercy of God."

I was at the funeral for a co-worker who had also died by suicide. The young person's father stood up and told the congregation that his child had always loved rabbits, had raised them and collected them. As this father was standing outside of the church gathering his strength to say goodbye, he said a rabbit hopped out from behind a bush and stood for the longest time just staring at him. And then it hopped away. He went back into the church to find his wife, to tell her what he'd seen. After he shared the story, she told him, with tears on her face, that she had just been praying and had asked their child to send a sign, and more specifically, to send a rabbit, to let them know that they no longer needed to worry. It didn't stop their grief or feelings of loss, but it did bring them comfort.

In a recent public audience, Pope Francis recently took a moment to comfort a young boy whose father had died as an atheist. The Holy Father shared words of comfort and mercy that point to the very heart of Jesus.

"Maybe we could cry like Emanuele when we have pain in our heart. He cries for his father who died and has had the courage to do it in front of us because there is love in his heart - he underlines - his father was an atheist but he had his four children baptized, he was a good man. It' nice that a son says his dad was "good." If that man was able to make children like that, he was a good man. God is proud of your father. God has a father's heart, your dad was a good man, he's in heaven with him, I'm sure. God has a father's heart and before an unbelieving father who was able to baptize his children, would God be able to abandon him? God surely was proud of your father, because it is easier to be a believer and to have children baptized than to be a non-believer and to have their children baptized. Pray for your dad. Talk to your dad. This is the answer." Pope Francis
If we know someone who's struggling with a loved one who has been lost by suicide, let us reach out to them, just as our Holy Father did with little Emanuele and share with them God's mercy and the Church's true teaching on this topic.


Monica Hannan is a three-time Emmy-award-winning television journalist and Catholic Press Association-honored author. She is currently pursuing an MA in Theology from the Augustine Institute.

Her latest book, Gift of Death: A Message of Comfort and Hope is available on Amazon.com. 

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

His Mother Brought Him to Lourdes, His Heavenly Mother Healed Him, Now He's a Priest

Grotto at Lourdes, France

Mothers make great sacrifices for their children, that is widely known. That they are often the gateway to sainthood perhaps less so, and yet, behind every great saint (to steal a phrase), is likely to be an attentive mother.
Fr. Christy David Pathiala

Fr. Christy David Pathiala would probably agree. He speaks of his own mother with great reverence, and along with that comes his devotion to the Virgin Mary, who touched him profoundly as a child when he was struck with a sudden seizure-like illness that baffled his parents and his doctors.

"I was in the I.C.U. for 12 hours and the doctors didn't have hope," he says. "I wasn't responding to medicines and they told my parents to prepare for my death. But they didn't give up. My parents' prayers saw me through."

He recovered from the acute illness, but it left him with unremitting fevers during which his body temperature would rise dangerously. He remembers being put into ice baths. His body temperature wasn't easy to regulate even when he wasn't sick. For instance, he says he couldn't eat or drink anything cold, or face a cold wind, as that would trigger the fever. He remembers well the worried faces of his parents, gazing down at him during his childhood illnesses.

In 1989, when he was four years old, his parents took him to the famous Marian shrine in Lourdes, France, the place where the Virgin Mary appeared to St. Bernadette. His mother had always prayed fervently for a cure for her son, and she had faith that this trip would be the difference. On their way to the shrine they passed an ice cream parlor and the young Christy looked at it with longing.

"Because ice cream was cold I couldn't eat it. When my brother ate ice cream, my father, out of pity, would always buy just the cone for me. I saw that parlor and begged my mother to let me have ice cream. "She had such faith," he said. She said, "'First we'll go to the baths, and even if he dies, he'll have that ice cream.'"

He remembers standing in line for the bath into which those searching for healing are dipped in the water that flows from the spring in the grotto where Mary appeared to St. Bernadette. While they were there, he and his father were approached by a woman pushing a child in a wheelchair. Amazingly, she placed five francs in Fr. Christy's hand and said, "Go have that ice cream." As she was leaving, she said to his father, "Pray for my son."

When his mother rejoined them, they told her about the woman and they looked everywhere for her but could not find her. Christy was dipped into the pool, and then the family returned to the ice cream parlor. "I had chocolate ice cream," Fr. Christy says. He admits he didn't particularly like it, but he was free to try other flavors afterward because the fevers were gone. He believes the woman was the Virgin Mary, and that the child in the wheelchair was Jesus. "After that day, I had the feeling she was telling me, 'I'm calling you for something.' I always talk to her in my prayers," he adds.

He didn't know at the time that the calling would be to the priesthood, but there were other clues. He was visiting Rome with his family and during a papal audience he came to the attention of Pope St. John Paul II, who bent over and hugged him. On that same trip, he was walking with his father when another priest walked up to them, pointed to his own priestly collar and said, "One day this child will become like me."

"I had forgotten it, but my father reminded me of it during my ordination," he says. "Looking back, I try to link how God has been guiding me throughout my life. I try to live in the present and let God decide how things will turn out."

It is with that philosophy that he took a sabbatical from his position as the Vice President of St. Albert's College (Autonomous) in Kerala, Southern India. He is in Bismarck, North Dakota, serving at the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit while studying at the University of Mary, working toward an eventual doctorate in Computer Science.

Fr. Christy shares his faith and his stories often because he says he wants people to know about his remarkable road to the priesthood. He says he will always have a special devotion to Mary and to his own mother, the women whom he credits with changing his life.

Monica Hannan is a three-time Emmy-award-winning television journalist and Catholic Press Association-honored author. She is currently pursuing an MA in Theology from the Augustine Institute.

Her latest book, Gift of Death: A Message of Comfort and Hope is available on Amazon.com. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

In the Shadow of Saints -- Padre Pio and St. Pope John Paul II

Cliff Naylor meets the Holy Father

In the 80s, my husband Cliff, a news photographer and reporter, accompanied Bismarck, ND Catholic Bishop John Kinney to Rome to record his five-year Ad-Limina visit, which is an obligation of church hierarchy to visit the tombs of the apostles, and to meet with the pope, in this case, Pope John Paul, II. Any time a Catholic visits the Vatican, it's exciting. But this trip was extra special for Cliff because he was able to shake the hand of the future saint and he also received a videotaped blessing for the people of the Diocese of Bismarck. During the visit, Pope John Paul gave a Rosary to Bishop Kinney, who in turn gave it to Cliff. And Cliff gave it to me. It's one of my most prized possession.

Long an admirer of St. John Paul, I always think I can feel his loving presence when I pray with that Rosary, knowing how much he loved people.

Relics displayed at Cathedral of the Holy Spirit

I got a similar sensation this week when I visited the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Bismarck, one of 40 locations across North America selected to host the relics of St. Padre Pio in commemoration of the 50th year of his death. I was at the church twice, once early in the day when the sanctuary was filled with students from schools throughout the area. The second time was in the evening when the church was filled almost to overflowing with people standing in line, sometimes for quite a while, to have the chance to view and touch the relics. The atmosphere in the church was one of quiet expectation. The lighting was subdued, music was playing, and people in the lines and in the pews were prayerful. I wasn't alone in this feeling.

"There was such a peacefulness and a quiet faith and witness, and people were just streaming in," says Patti Armstrong. She arrived at the church at 7:30 in the evening and stayed through night prayer at the end. "The music was so powerful," she adds. "The church was filled to overflowing and people were singing without accompaniment. All those voices. There was a deep, holy echo that reverberated through the church and it was so beautiful that I couldn't pull myself away."

Nobody kept a count of exactly how many people visited that day, but estimates are between two and three thousand. It says a lot about us, no matter where we are on our journey to redemption and our faith, that we are drawn to what is holy. Some people had remarkable experiences that stemmed from the visit. Read about of them here:
Two Supernatural Experiences Associated with Padre Pio Relics 

Friday, March 9, 2018

Redemption for Lent: Sin, Soul Searching and Salvation

There's a famous story in St. Augustine's Confessions in which he and a group of youngsters looking for mischief steal pears, just for the thrill of the theft:

We carried off a huge load of pears, not to eat ourselves, but to dump out to the hogs, after barely tasting some of them ourselves. Doing this pleased us all the more because it was forbidden. -- The Confessions of St. Augustine, Book 2, Chap. 4

This is a story that Marshall Schmidt can understand. I know this because one night he sat in a restaurant with a group of relative strangers, fellow students at the Augustine Institute in Denver, quietly listening as they shared the details of their lives. When the group finally turned as one to look at him and asked, "What's your story?" they were surprised into silence. For the next half hour, while his food grew cold, he shared the tale of his first 30 years.
Marshall's Story of Redemption
"Well, do you want to know the part about my going to jail, or the drugs and drinking? Or the part about my becoming a friar?" We wanted to hear it all.
Former Friar Marshall Schmidt Listens in Class

He came to the A.I. as a student, seeking a Master's Degree in Theology. It's a new journey for him. Prior to that, he'd spent the last six years as a Capuchin friar, a place he still thought of as home, and where he still visits from time to time. His time there was a balm to a troubled soul, but in the end, he felt called to a different vocation.

"I loved my time as a friar," he says, "but I was looking for a non-clerical way to shepherd souls."

Backing up his story, he explained that he'd had a normal childhood, growing up the oldest of three kids in a Catholic family where Sunday Mass was a given. Good grades were expected. But he was bored. As a high school junior he began smoking grass, and he got away with it.

"My grades were actually better when I was using," he explains. "I'd just do my homework so my parents wouldn't know what I was up to."

After graduation he bounced around, going to school for a while, working in a lumber yard, a stint as a cook. He started drinking regularly because alcohol was easier to get than pot, and easier to hide, but before long, it became a problem. He says he would drink as a way to cope with stress he didn't know how to handle.

"I was doing a lot of  things that were making me unhappy," he says. To kill time and for a cheap thrill, he and a buddy got into the habit of breaking into the concessions area on the campus of his college and pilfering snacks. One fateful night they were caught with $500 worth of soda and chips.
"I didn't even want them," he says with a wry smile. He spent two nights in jail before he got to see the judge, long nights of staring at the ceiling, thinking about where he was going, looking at why he was making bad decisions, wondering why he wasn't happy. The light still didn't come on. So he went to cooking school and got a good job working as a chef, in an environment where drinking and casual drug use were the norm.

God Never Gives Up 
As proof that God never gives up on a soul, the nagging discontent in the back of Marshall's mind never stopped.

"My brokenness contributed to my search for God," he says. "I thought, 'I am worth being loved.'" On a whim, he went on a church retreat where he met a girl and fell in love. He began practicing the sacraments again. He thought his life was finally on the right track, until the girl that he thought he would spend his life with suddenly broke off their relationship. He says he was devastated, and despair took over his life.

"I was angry at God," he says. "I went into the church and challenged him. I said, 'Okay, if you think you can run my life better than me, go ahead.' I don't know what I expected, but once I gave him that permission my phone started ringing; I was hearing from people who cared about me, I got close to my family again. I lost my taste for alcohol. Didn't want to drink at all. I found myself going to church, praying more. So I thought, 'Okay, God, I guess you proved yourself.' I know now that God is almighty and he can be in control if you invite him." Through that invitation, he says he became aware of a desire to serve God, but felt the priesthood was too solitary for him. He began looking into religous communities, and the Capuchins appealed to him. "I felt at home there, so I applied, and by the grace of God, they let me in."

After six years of formation, though, there came what he called a "gut check" moment when it was time to either totally commit his life to the community or go a different way. "I just didn't feel I was called to make a lifelong commitment." So he left the order in April of 2017. He was already a student at the A.I., and working on an undergraduate degree as well, but what he'll do with them once he finishes he says, "God only knows." He says he's open to the guidance of the Lord, but he suspects he'll be heading for a chaplaincy program where he'll work with the sick. He may not become a famous bishop, as St. Augustine did, but he hopes to make his mark in his own way. And with God on his side, he knows he's been redeemed.

Monica Hannan is an award-winning journalist and author. Her latest book,
Gift of Death-A Message of Comfort and Hope is available on Amazon.com.