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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. 

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Billy Graham's Saving Message

The Rev. Billy Graham had a simple message--give your life to Jesus. And that's exactly what he did. He may have counseled presidents, he may have been the first religious leader to lie in state in the nation's Capitol, he may have founded a media dynasty, but he always knew who he was. In many ways, he transcended religious differences as he spread his missionary message to souls in 185 countries. He had a special friendship with Pope St. John Paul II. And in his death at the age of 99, he has, for just a moment, caused the world to focus on something that seems barely whispered about in the secular media today. Where will we go when we die?

When asked about death, Rev. Graham told a worried follower,  "You should not worry. The Bible clearly teaches that if we know Christ, we are safely in God's hands forever." When asked how we can know for sure that heaven exists he said, "The only way you could know for sure...would be for someone to die and go there--and then come back to life and tell us about it. And that's exactly what Jesus did." He frequently counseled his followers with the words, "Come and give your life to Christ. Do it now, while there's still time."

Getting right with God is, of course, the most important thing you should do. And while you're at it, consider things you might want to say to those you love while you're still here.

Five Things to Say Before You Die

You might start with, "I'm sorry." If there are people you've harmed, now's the time to set things right. As it says in Ephesians 4:32, "Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you." 

The words "I forgive you" come right along with expressing remorse. Psychologists will tell you forgiveness is mainly for your benefit because it allows you to let go of bitterness, which in turn helps to free your soul.

"I love you," is next on the list. I believe this is easier to say these days than it once was, particularly for men, but it can still come hard. Don't assume that your loved ones know how you feel.

Then there's "Thank you." You may take all of that care you've received over your lifetime for granted, but you should know that it isn't always easy to be there for someone else. For those who are "there" for you, be grateful.

And finally, say goodbye. That might be the hardest part, because people are afraid to leave their loved ones behind. Give those you love a chance to tell you how much you mean to them and let them know about their place in your heart as well. It's healing for you both, and it's a gift only you can give.

Billy Graham had a heart for Christ. He called people to repent and believe in the Gospel and to love one another. We can learn a lot from the great evangelist, and his last words to his granddaughter as she was saying goodbye. They were simply, "I love you."

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

Monday, February 12, 2018

God and Norah O'Donnell

Norah O'Donnell's Sunday Tradition

Few people understand the constraints that journalists are under when it comes to personal beliefs better than I. When we're reporting, we're supposed to leave our religious views at the door. But what about those times when we aren't working?

I saw something on Sunday that broke my heart. It was an interview with Norah O' Donnell, host of  CBS This Morning, for Parade Magazine. The interview claimed to cover "truth in journalism and Sunday traditions." O'Donnell was asked how she spent Sundays as a child. She said that she grew up going to a Catholic church in San Antonio, Texas, and was never allowed to miss Mass, a routine that she claimed was "incredibly important" to her. Following that, she said she and her family would watch 60 Minutes.

The follow-up question was, "And how do you spend Sundays now?" Her response: "We have family dinners and watch 60 Minutes. That's one thing that's remained constant in 40 years." Her point was that she always wanted to be a 60 Minutes correspondent. Yet I can't help but wonder if she considered how her answer would sound. Did she mean to imply that what is most important to her and her children now, rather than her religious tradition, is a television show?

Having been interviewed myself, I know that sometimes answers can be edited to the point where the meaning changes. I hope that was the case here. But if not, what will O'Donnell's children say was incredibly important about their Sunday routines growing up?

Monday, January 22, 2018

Book Review: Sum of Small Things

When the Rich Make Waves
Over the summer, the magazine Boat International reported that author J.K. Rowling sold a yacht. A number of magazines and news outlets had previously reported that she purchased the vessel “Amphitrite,” once owned and decorated by film star Johnny Depp, for a reported $27 million. She put it on the market less than a year later, with a list price of just over $19 million. Her willingness to lose more than $7 million on a pleasure boat that she owned for such a short time could have something to do with her one-time listing in Forbes magazine as one of the richest women in the world, with a net worth of more than $ 1 billion. She lists her reason for selling as a “private matter,” yet reading the details could make one think that millions are mere pocket change to Rowling.

In her book, The Sum of Small Things, author Elizabeth Currid-Halket mentions boats as one way that today’s rich distinguish themselves from the masses. Most Americans could not even afford to vacation on such a boat, let alone own it. At the same time, if one were to see Rowling on the street, it is unlikely that she would stand out from those around her on first glance, because most women today wear a version of the same outfit, either designer wear or clothing made to appear designer. On this point I agree with the author that because our goods are more affordable, even the economically disadvantaged individual likely owns a television and a cellphone, “distressed” jeans and a moto jacket. These things offer the appearance that all are doing well financially.

I also agree that it is the inconspicuous consumption categories that set people apart from one another. The wealthy can afford better childcare, better healthcare, better schools for their children and domestic help that gives them more time to spend on relationships. Particularly interesting to me was the chapter on mothering, which brings the gap between rich and poor into sharp focus in a way that I would guess few in our society have considered. These types of differences create societal gaps and disharmony that can be dangerous. As evidence on a grand scale, consider the Russian Revolution or the rise of Nazi Germany. I once interviewed a woman who grew up during the Great Depression, who told me that people didn’t feel their poverty then the way they do now because it was a shared experience. None of her neighbors had any money. People in her circle survived through barter, or by sharing what they had with one another. She told me, “You didn’t feel embarrassed to be wearing a dress made of flour sacks, because all of your neighbors were wearing them, too.” That line of thinking says that trouble happens when people feel that they are poor while everybody around them is better off.

If, as the author suggests, one can hide one’s financial difficulties with the outer trappings of success, it at least provides societal armor. What others cannot see is our increasing cycle of credit card debt as we fall further behind every month. Strangers cannot know who among their neighbors faces a future of poverty in their old age because they are spending for today rather than saving for tomorrow.

Currid-Halket mentions, briefly, that there are moral considerations, but though she spends a great deal of time proving her point with statistics, she comes up short in a key area–the roles that faith, hope and charity play in creating a livable world. Her overall message seems to be one that points out the dangers of selfishness, as Americans increasingly become a people protecting their own monetary futures while turning a blind eye to those who have no financial safety net. The author indicates that true happiness comes from relationships and a feeling of security when she says, “We confuse the pressure to keep up with our peers as the key to success—and by extension, happiness.” I believe this is true. But her “why” is missing a key component—that adherence to a God-centered lifestyle is the only key to true happiness and contentment. God is the elephant in the room. She expounds on the idea that goods obtained in this life are vitally important, but leaves out the reason for society’s dissatisfaction and need to have more and more—the idea that people are dissatisfied and frightened because they have no expectation of a life beyond this one.

She says that despite our growing class differences, Americans appear to be doing fine, and are in fact considered rich by the standards of many other countries. But she says our economic growth is flat. If, as the author indicates, the economic prosperity around the world is changing to a rising middle class, why is this a bad thing?  For Americans, I believe, it is because simply doing fine is not good enough. We expect to do better than our parents did, and when we can’t, we are unhappy. But having all the money in the world does not guarantee happiness either. That, I believe, comes through belief and trust in a Supreme Being.

It is interesting to note that Rowling was not always rich. Prior to the sale of her first Harry Potter book, she says she was a single mom living on welfare, someone who knows what it is to have limited expectations. She has fallen off of the billion-dollar list, again according to Forbes, in part because she has given so much money to charity. It is hard to relate to her level of wealth, but I would be willing to bet her dedication to her charity, Lumos, brings her more satisfaction than did her yacht. Currid-Halkett points this out, saying, “Research shows if we’re going to spend money we actually should spend it on others to gain any meaningful satisfaction.” Now we need to get to the point where it is not a risk for mainstream writers and journalists to bring God into the equation so that we do not have to read between the lines.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Praying to the Saints

At Mass today celebrating the Solemnity of All Saints, the celebrant talked about the lesson of the stained glass window. He said saints weren't perfect, but like light through a stained glass window, their souls shined through them in a beautiful way.

A little later I read Pope Francis' reflections on the day as well, and there was the stained glass reference again. He was quoted in the National Catholic Register as saying, "Saints are not perfect models, but are people whose lives God has crossed,” and they can be compared with the stained-glass windows of a church, “which allow light to enter in different shades of color.”

As we observe the day, we are reminded that death is not the end, and we pray to saints because, like all of us, they live on. Take comfort in knowing that you are never alone.  Revelation tells us that the saints are not only there, but they can hear us and can act on our behalf (Rev. 5:18). We have a lot of help available if we simply ask.